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From bugs to smishing: Inside the Schools Cyber Security Challenges

From social media sleuthing to crafty cryptography, the Schools Cyber Security Challenges help students gain skills and knowledge about cyber security practices and principles.

The Schools Cyber Security Challenges are a series of realistic learning modules that teach cyber security techniques and coding. They’re a great way to skill up in the technical fields and human aspects of cyber security and can be done in groups in class, or solo at home. Challenges can take between four to eight hours to complete.

“We know many schools have programs in cyber safety and bullying, but kids aren’t learning the technology elements they need to stay safe,” says Associate Professor James Curran, Director of the Australian Computing Academy (ACA), which created and runs the Challenges.

The Challenges cover four topic areas: information privacy and security, data encryption and transmission, wired and wireless network security and web application security. Each Challenge is linked to school learning areas such as Information and Communication Technology (ICT) capabilities and the Australian Curriculum: Digital Technologies.

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“As teachers, we were looking for something more than just the usual talks and videos about using social media and the cyber security course has filled this void beautifully,” says Shirley Munro, an ICT teacher from McKinnon Secondary College in Melbourne.

“The course is giving students a great insight into the world of cyber security. It shows them how the information they share across different platforms can be pieced together to gather a detailed profile about them in the online world.”

More than 85,000 students in 2200 schools from across Australia have taken part in the Challenges. Beren Horgan, a year 7 student at Sydney Secondary College in Balmain says the Information Privacy and Security Challenge was “fun and interactive”.

Associate Professor James Curran, Director of the ACA, created and runs the Challenges.

“It was very innovative. They have many different apps to interact with that allow you to find out information about people,” he says.

From Cyber 101 to network security

“Students quickly realise how the Challenges relate to unsafe situations and behaviour online by themselves or their parents that leave them open to fraud, cyber attacks or scams,” says James.

For example, parents posting about their children’s birthdays a few days after the event and posting images of their school uniforms on social media means their personal information is easily accessible. Understanding how much we share online and what’s safe and what’s risky is a big part of the first Challenge.

RELATED: What is cyber security and cyber crime?

“There are little steps people can take to share safely,” says James.

The content is continually updated to stay relevant. For example, while phishing (email scams) is included in the Information Privacy and Security Challenge, there’s been a rise in ‘SMSishing’ or SMS phishing: texts sent directly to kids’ phones via SMS.

Skill up for career preparedness

You’ll also hear from people working in cyber security, one of the fastest growing job areas around. Worldwide, 53% of organisations report a shortage of cyber security skills. And it’s not just about your technical knowhow. Essential cyber security skills include tenacity, curiosity, being systematic, being able to piece together information and being resilient in your approach to a problem, says James.

“All of cyber security is about problem-solving – often with people. If you don’t have access to the code on a website and you’re looking for a bug (error), you need to think about how you can keep ‘pulling that thread’ to find that bug,” he says.

“We wanted to show in an authentic way that careers link to the kind of problem-solving that you see in the challenges – like social media sleuthing,” says James. “In all of our activities we include industry professionals explaining what it’s like to work in cyber security. Young people in the working world talking about their career and their pathway is an important insight into what cyber security is.”

If you’re looking to develop your tech skills further, there are also Digital Technologies Challenges (online and unplugged classroom activities for Years 3–8) and more courses on the ACA website.

Done the Challenges and looking for what’s next? You can get involved in Capture the Flag competitions (see p16) or take our cyber safety quiz.

“There are a bunch of competitions and activities out there for kids to get into!” says James.

Name drop: get the lingo

Bug: An error in programming.

Cipher: An algorithm (set of rules) to encrypt or decrypt information. The simplest ciphers replace alphabetical letters with numbers, for example.

Cryptography: Techniques to keep information secure by using codes, scrambling techniques and keys.

Exploit: An attempt to take advantage of a bug or flaw in a system for malicious purposes.

Network security: Rules and set-ups designed to protect networked devices from hacks. Networked devices can include drones, fridges, TVs, road signs, or even vehicles.

Phishing: An attempt to get you to provide information that can be used for cyber crimes like banking details, personal information or passwords.

Smishing: Phishing scams conducted by SMS.

Try these challenges!

Information privacy and security: Grasp personal information security by thinking like a hacker. You will learn to value the importance of password strength and protection, as well as discovering just how vulnerable private information can be online.

Cryptography: Learn basic cryptography concepts in relation to data representation and securing online communication, and how these concepts are implemented through code. This Challenge teaches programming in the context of classic cryptographic ciphers like rotation, XOR and mixed substitution, and explains the techniques used to break these forms of encryption.

Network security: This Challenge teaches the fundamentals of wired and wireless networks and the underlying principles of digital systems using BBC micro:bits.

Web application security: This Challenge demonstrates the importance of security in web applications by exposing typical flaws in websites that can be exploited using tools built into the web browser.

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