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CanHack 2021: Teaching Students Cyber Security Skills Through Friendly Competition

By Diane Amato

Published January 18, 2021 • 6 Min Read

Extracurricular activities have taken a back seat this year, narrowing students’ opportunities for non-traditional learning, competition, and play. Teachers are overwhelmed as they adapt to a new style of teaching and parents are trying to hold it all together. The environment is ripe for a tech competition that keeps kids busy, teaches them valuable cyber security skills, and gets them interested in future careers that are in hot demand. Not to mention an opportunity to win cash prizes.

CanHack 2021 is an online cyber security challenge for Canadian high school students run by the DMZ at Ryerson University in partnership with RBC. The program is based on the PicoCTF platform developed by Carnegie Mellon University, and the “Capture the Flag” style competition is made up of a series of challenges centred around a unique storyline. Participants must reverse engineer, break, hack, decrypt, or do whatever it takes to solve the challenges.

“It’s a great opportunity for students to learn coding in a gamified way,” says Naveed Tagari, DMZ Sandbox Coordinator. “It’s not all numbers and letters. You’re a character in a game, navigating through different challenges and learning about coding as you go.”

As students progress through increasingly complex levels of play, they win points for the challenges they solve. The winner of the competition will be the team with the most points. A total of $16,250 is up for grabs this year.

The importance of training youth in cyber security

In an increasingly digital world, understanding cyber security matters more than ever.

When students learn skills such as reverse engineering, computer forensics, cryptography, and web security, they not only learn fundamental digital literacy, they get introduced to career possibilities they might not have otherwise considered. They can also fill the workforce gaps that threaten the future security of systems, people and organizations.

By giving Canadian youth an opportunity to learn cyber security skills, CanHack addresses some growing vulnerabilities:

More cyber threats than ever

Before the onset of COVID-19, Canadians were already spending a great deal of time online. Since last March, online activity has skyrocketed as Canadians depend on technology to work, learn, shop for essentials, hang out with friends, and more. And while technology keeps people connected, it also makes them more susceptible to cyber attacks.

“More people and more businesses are doing things online,” says May Sarout, Senior Director of Cyber Security Strategic Partnerships and Innovation at RBC. “The threat surface has significantly increased. There has been a tremendous increase in phishing attacks and scams, preying on people’s vulnerabilities over the last year,” adds Sarout.

The critical importance of maintaining cyber safety — at home and at work — has intensified, and the future of online safety will depend on the investment made in developing future talent.

Major gaps in the cyber workforce

Talent shortages have long existed in the cyber security landscape and the shortfall has been highlighted during COVID-19. The need for cyber skills is expected to expand even further as the reality of long-term remote working settles in and work itself becomes increasingly digital. The talent gap may continue to widen. CanHack offers the chance for students to jump on an extraordinary opportunity.

“CanHack inspires students to pursue cyber security by offering them a well-rounded experiential learning opportunity to establish basic digital literacy, cyber security and privacy skills,” says Abdullah Snobar, Executive Director of the DMZ. “The competition is hands-on. Students also get exposure to experts in the field, which helps them envision the career possibilities that are out there.”

Because new grads with cyber security skills are — and will likely continue to be — in high demand, higher salaries for these roles should follow.

Another significant deficiency in the cyber workforce is the lack of women in the talent pool — an imbalance both RBC and Ryerson are passionate about addressing.

“There is a considerable gender gap in the cybersecurity field — women only represent about 20 per cent of the cybersecurity workforce, yet they represent half of the population,” says Snobar. The need to bring more women into STEM fields goes beyond gender diversity. There is already a skill and talent gap for STEM roles in the workforce, and getting more women interested from an early age may ensure Canada’s future workforce is set up for success.

As such, CanHack is taking steps to inspire and recruit more women-identifying students. They have created a prize for the top all-female team and run female-only workshops on a number of cyber security topics.

The need for personal cyber resilience

As the risk of cyber attacks increase, it’s not just businesses and grown-ups that need protection. Today’s youth, who right now spend more of their lives online are more exposed to potential cyber scams.

“Students are now almost 100 percent online. Youth need to become more cyber resilient and cyber savvy. Through this program, they will learn great skills that can help protect them,” says Sarout.

CanHack 2021: March 16 – 30th

This year’s CanHack competition is completely virtual, so Canadian students from across the country can join. Leading up to the competition in March, the DMZ is running comprehensive workshops to help prepare students for the main event. Live workshops run every Wednesday at 5:00 p.m. EST, but students can watch previously recorded workshops at any time on the CanHack Resource Hub, and are encouraged to. RBC mentors are also available to answer questions about the competition and cyber security career planning.

There is no prerequisite and the competition is open to any student from Grade 9 to Grade 12 at a Canadian high school, regardless of their experience with computer science or cyber security. The top team prize is $2,000, the top school prize is $3,000 and the top all-female team prize is $2,000.

Although CanHack has run three times before, the DMZ and RBC are particularly excited to provide this opportunity to students this year. “We know this is a challenging year for students, parents and teachers,” says Sarout. “We hope this program instills a life-long interest in cyber security and opens new doors for students,” adds Snobar.

Have a student interested in CanHack 2021? Contact your child’s high school to arrange registration through the school, or register as a parent supervisor. More sign-up information can be found on the Registration Page.

This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.

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