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June 16, 2021

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Faith Lutheran students make finals of cybersecurity competition

CyberPatriot Competitors at Faith Lutheran

Wade Vandervort

CyberPatriot National Youth Cyber Defense competitor Owen Thompson fixes potential configuration vulnerabilities in server software through the CyberPatriot platform at Faith Lutheran High School, Friday, May 14, 2021. Thompsons team finished first in its statewide CyberPatriot competition division and became the first Nevada team to reach the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition national finals.

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From left, students of the CyberPatriot cyber education program Natalie McKinney, Owen Thompson and Emma Kwok hold award medallions from CyberPatriot competitions at Faith Lutheran High School, Friday, May 14, 2021.

Owen Thompson, an 18-year-old senior at Faith Lutheran High School, has been competing for years, but his team has never before made it to the championships.

He doesn’t play basketball or football or any other sport, for that matter.

Thompson is a member of his school’s cybersecurity team, and this year, they took the state championship and advanced to the national finals. They were one of the top 12 teams out of 1,600 participating, school officials said.

“I was thrilled,” Thompson said. “The previous four seasons we’ve come so close to getting to the finals but never quite made it.”

Faith Lutheran Team A was one of five teams the school fielded in the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition sponsored by the nonprofit Air Force Association.

Teams are judged on how fast they secure a computer system and how many vulnerabilities they uncover and fix as security professionals actively try to hack the system.

Besides Thompson, other Faith Lutheran Team A members were Lucas Bergman, Lorenzo Cacciapuoti, Cheryl Kirgan, Colin Saumure and Benjamin See.

Thompson graduates Friday and is going to the University of California, Berkeley, where he plans to major in electrical engineering and computer science. He wants to become a security software engineer or analyst.

People today are dependent on the internet, and there is a “responsibility of ensuring that it does not get misused or taken over by people with malicious intent,” Thompson said.

A recent ransomware attack that shut down a U.S. gasoline pipeline demonstrates the importance of cybersecurity, said Jose Diaz, a computer science teacher and the CyberPatriot team coach at Faith Lutheran.

“Ransomware attacks happen all the time,” Diaz said. “People seriously underestimate how vulnerable systems are.”

He said teaching cybersecurity in the past was controversial, because it necessarily reveals how systems can be hacked.

"I use the analogy of boxing. You can't teach a boxer how to block only. They have to know how to throw a punch,” Diaz said.