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High School Girls Hack into Male-Dominated Cybersecurity Industry

By Janet Upadhye | November 20, 2012 7:03am | Updated on November 20, 2012 8:46am

DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — Fifteen-year-old Darby Olex-Memoli has never known a world without the Internet.

In her earliest memories, she played games like "Putt Putt Saves the Zoo" on the Internet. At age 12 she created her Facebook profile. By 13 she had her own laptop, and as a freshman in high school she took classes in building hardware and programming.

“For my generation, computer languages are like a second language,” she said.

To Olex-Memoli, it only makes sense to prepare for a job in the computer technology industry.

But for many young women, that can be difficult. According to Olex-Memoli, there are usually only two or three girls in her computer classes. She says the stereotype is that boys should do stuff like learning programming and girls should study English.

But the teen won’t be pigeonholed.

“I am a leader,” she said. “Women are smart enough to be in this field, too.”

And that is why Olex-Memoli and a group of female students from Red Bank Regional High School in New Jersey traveled two-and-a-half hours to sit at a table in Downtown Brooklyn and participate in NYU-Poly’s annual "hack-a-thon" competition.

Last Friday afternoon, the girls huddled over lit computer screens, talking file transversion and password decoding inside a gymnasium filled with boys.

“The world of engineering is a very male-dominated field,” said Kathleen Hamilton, spokeswoman for NYU-Poly. “NYU-Poly is working to shift that balance and present opportunities for young women who want to get into the field.”

Cybersecurity is a newer component of computer engineering involving the protection of basically everything that hides behind a digital wall in this country, including smart grids, water systems, banks and even more personal items like cell phones and computer-operated cars.

NYU-Poly was the second school in the nation to start a cybersecurity program in 1999.

And in observance of Cyber Security Awareness Week, NYU-Poly converged some of the brightest minds in the field for a 36-hour hack-a-thon competition. While the entire competition is completely fabricated by NYU-Poly professors, the programs and scenarios mimic real life.

“In order to defend systems, you have to know how to hack them,” said Professor of Digital Forensics Joel Fernandez, who spent more than 400 hours with a team of engineers designing the competition. “We teach students to solve the real-world cybersecurity crimes of today.”

The overwhelming majority of the nearly 60 high school and college teams that made it past the finals were male. In response, NYU-Poly invited several all-girl teams — who didn't make the finals after the two-month-long competition — to attend and participate in the hack-a-thon anyway.

The Red Bank girls were chosen to compete — and they were determined to do well.

On Friday, the girls were investigating the fabricated murder of a man left holding only a USB thumb drive containing information from his cell phone and email. Using email analysis, credit card number identification, social networking forensics and driver license number tracking, the team was tasked with uncovering the circumstances of the murder.

Two days later, the Red Bank girls solved the mystery and earned second place in their portion of the competition.

Their win comes despite a few unique challenges, according to Hamilton. Computer engineers had to build a totally safe network for girls to learn to hack and defend, because if they were to do so in the real world, they could possibly be faced with pedophiles or other dangers.

“A weekend like this gives these girls a safe place to hack,” she said. “And we do hope they go on to be leaders in the field.”