Cat with a message
This photo of a cat carried an embedded message about a proposed protest.

It may look like just another cat internet photo but this one contains an embedded message inviting people to a protest. Last summer, interns from Albuquerque area high schools spent eight weeks learning how to take apart computer code and put it back together in interesting ways.

The students were recruited from local computer challenge events by UNM Associate Professor of Computer Science Jed Crandall.  He hopes to build interest among high school students interested in learning more about computer science.

Crandall teamed with the Anderson School of Management's professor and UNM’s Information Assurance Research & Education Director Alex Seazzu for the class.  For the first few weeks the students learned about internet privacy from Seazzu.  Then they took the students on an adventure to show them how hacking works in the real world.

The students decided to do a realistic situation in an imaginary country called Whocaresistan where the government is busy implementing tighter censorship.  The main actor in their story, Oscar Meyer is organizing a protest against the censorship.  UNM freshman Ryan Delao picks up the story.

Over the next few weeks, Crandall and some of the summer interns will talk to high school students who might be interested in learning more about computer science.  But learning how to deconstruct computer code was only part of the classwork.

Seazzu taught the group about privacy in the digital world – how countries, companies and individuals all define privacy in different ways.  The group explored how those lines are set, who sets them and how they change in response to current events in the world.  Seazzu also worked with the interns to help them learn where the legal lines are for hackers, and what they consequences are when they are crossed.  He says they have to know as much as possible about the legal environment in which they are working.

So why is UNM teaching students how to tear apart computer code?

“There is actually the term ethical hacking which is where as a company you may want to hire someone to try to break into your system as if they were a malicious hacker so that you could see what the vulnerabilities are,” UNM Computer Science Department Chair Michalis Faloutsos said.

Crandall and Seazzu are already searching for students who might be interested in spending next summer at UNM. Students interested in learning more about UNM Computer Science can visit the department’s website.  They can also visit UNM’s Center for Information Assurance Research and Education’s website.