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Club studies hacking

John Cameron | Monday, August 27, 2012

Students who have fallen victim to a computer virus or identity theft before are all too aware of the importance of computer security. But a group of Notre Dame students is exploring the process of hacking to promote computer skills.

In the academic world, computer scientists and engineers study computer hacking to gain a better understanding of how to protect against it.

A new initiative by Notre Dame’s Linux Users Club, a group focused on educating students about the open-source Linux operating system, is intended to encourage members to explore computer hacking.

Senior Jared Schneider, a computer science major in the club, is working on the initiative. He ultimately hopes for the club to compete in national hacking challenges, such as DEF CON, the preeminent hacking convention held in Las Vegas every summer.

“The idea is to get everybody, no matter what [his or her] major or skill level, to the same point,” he said. “Then from there, we get the ball rolling. We’re years of dedication away from that.”

Schneider found inspiration for the initiative from other schools’ hacking clubs, especially Carnegie Mellon University’s.

“Carnegie has this team, [Plaid Parliament of Pwning], that consecutively ranks [in the] top-ten at the hacking challenges,” he said. “They got second at DEF CON with a team of 11 people. The first-place team had 80.”

While Schneider doesn’t have any hopes of the club sending a team to DEF CON in the near future, he would like to see them compete at some level.

“Usually there are qualifiers to the events,” he said. “They’re usually remote, so we could probably participate in one of those.”

Schneider hopes the club will work toward a competitive skill level through the study of reverse engineering.

“When you code something, you put it into a form that only the computer can understand for the most part,” he said. “Reverse engineering is like taking the cow out of a hamburger. You’re bringing out code that is unusable to anyone but the computer, and bringing that back into usable form.”

He said many universities do not provide education in this area of computer science.

“A lot of people don’t like to teach it because it’s also a way to steal things,” he said. “If Microsoft comes out with a great new program, reverse engineering is a way to go into its code and find out how it works, and that’s where intellectual property issues come up.”

The reverse-engineering initiative is putting a unique twist on the club’s stated purpose, Schneider said.

“The idea of the club is basically to introduce people to Linux,” he said. “It’s about creating an environment for professors and students to work together … There’s a lot of untapped potential there.”

Whether or not the club ever makes it to DEFCON, Schneider said the skills gained by competitive hacking training would benefit the club’s members.

“[Hacking] is about self-guided learning and learning a different way to look at things,” he said. “It’s not about placing in competitions.”

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