Enter the maze

Ninja White Hat Hacking

Computer hackers are the bad guys, aren't they? They cause mayhem: shutting down websites, releasing classified information, stealing credit card numbers, spreading viruses. They can cause lots of harm, even when they don't mean to. Not all hackers are bad though. Some, called white hat hackers, are ethical hackers, and the best are paid by companies to test their security by actively trying to break in - it's called penetration testing. It's not just business though, it's also now a game.

Perhaps the most famous white hat hacker is Kevin Mitnick. He started out as a bad guy - the most-wanted computer criminal in the US. Eventually the FBI caught him, and after spending 5-years in prison he reformed and became a white hat hacker who now runs his own computer security company. The way he hacked systems had nothing to do with computer skills and everything to do with language skills. He did what's called social engineering. A social engineer uses their skills of persuasion to con people into telling them confidential information or maybe even actually doing things for them like downloading a program that contains spyware code. Professional white hat hackers have to have all round skills though: network, hardware or software hacking skills, not just social engineering ones. They need to understand a wide range of potential threats if they are to properly test a company's security and help them fix all the vulnerabilities.

Breaking the law and ending up in jail, like Kevin Mitnik, isn't a great way to learn the skills for your long-term career though. A more normal way to become an expert is to go to university and take classes. Wouldn't playing games be a much more fun way to learn than sitting in lectures, though? That was what Tamara Denning, Tadayoshi Kohno, and Adam Shostack, computer security experts from the University of Washington, wondered. As a result, they teamed up with Steve Jackson Games and came up with Control-Alt-Hack(TM) (www.controlalthack.com). It's based on the cult tabletop card game, Ninja Burger. Rather than being part of a Ninja Burger Delivery team as in that game, in Control-Alt-Hack(TM) you are an ethical white hat hacker working for an elite security company. You have to complete missions using your Ninja hacking skills: from shutting down an energy company to turning a robotic vacuum cleaner into a pet. The game is lots of fun, but the idea is that by playing it you'll learn lots about the kinds of threats that security experts have to protect against.

So if you like gaming why not learn something useful at the same time as having fun. Who knows, it might even lead one day to a career as a security expert.