Duane Dunston—and the World’s Youth—to the Cyber Rescue!

In his thought-provoking TEDx Stowe talk, Duane Dunston argues that middle and high school students may be the answer to the world’s most urgent cybersecurity threats.

“I can’t imagine anything more important than cyber defense,” says General Suzanne Vautrinot, the first woman to lead the Air Force’s Cyber Command. “The more dependent we are on a capability, the more important it is to defend that capability.” Duane Dunston works to make the world a more secure place by teaching the next generation of Cybersecurity professionals at Champlain College. For the last four years, he has also been a mentor in the CyberPatriots Vermont program.

CyberPatriots was started by the Air Force Association in 2009 to attract middle and high school students to academic study and careers in cybersecurity or STEM fields. Through the program, 11–18 year old students learn how to defend different operating systems and platforms from cyber attacks. Mentors like Dunston teach students how to find and fix a variety of cybersecurity vulnerabilities in simulated networks. They learn how to act responsibly and ethically in the cybersphere and use technology in a way that is appropriate, responsible, and respectful of others.

CyberPatriot students listening to Duane Dunston at a cyber training day at Champlain College.

Dunston was drawn to cybersecurity back in 1997 when a computer at his alma mater was hacked. “The hackers were in Brazil and they attacked this small town in the middle of North Carolina—it was amazing to me,” says the professor. From that point on, cybersecurity became an obsession. He worked on beat-up old computers at home to hone his skills.

During a recent TEDx Stowe talk, Dunston cited a scourge of recent cyber attacks and vulnerabilities—from the massive data breach at the credit reporting agency Equifax which compromised more than 143 million accounts; to the local phishing attack on Rutland Regional Medical Center which leaked 72,000 medical records; to the scathing report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office which showed how the Department of Defense’s weapons system had egregious vulnerabilities.

“It’s clear we need more cybersecurity professionals,” said Dunston on the TEDx stage. “Unfortunately, we have a large number of jobs open and not enough people to fill them.” Dunston is focused on closing that gap. “At Champlain, I teach future cybersecurity professionals who will sort out big businesses and hopefully the weapons systems, too!”

Dunston leads a CyberPatriots training session at Champlain College.

However, the most common targets of cyber breaches are the organizations we use every day. They’re the small businesses in our communities. “They make up 96% of our country’s business,” says Dunston. “Many of them may not understand, or even know how to implement basic security controls.”

Dunston proposes we recruit middle, high school, and college students as Cyberpatriots to act as community-based Computer Emergency Response Teams or CERTS: “Organizations could pay a small fee, say $200/year, to finance a CERT operations center that is staffed and managed by students at a local school to address their security needs on a continuous basis.”

Enlisting local youth to oversee cybersecurity at your office is not as far-fetched as you might think, argues Dunston. “At restaurants, teenagers prepare and cook our food. They babysit our kids. A 16-year-old can be a lifeguard, an emergency medical responder, or a camp counselor. We trust teenagers with our children even though we may have never met them.”

“Let’s admit it,” he says. “Your kids understand more about your computer than you do, so let’s use this untapped resource.”

Let’s admit it. Your kids understand more about your computer than you do, so let’s use this untapped resource.

Duane Dunston
Families can get involved in Cyberpatriots, too, and learn how to identify potential cyberattacks directed at them or their loved ones. 

We asked Dunston to explain the importance of cybersecurity.

“We don’t realize how much we depend on technology until we can’t access it. We take for granted that our private information will remain private. We all have communications we’d like to keep secret. And it doesn’t work to say, ‘Don’t put it in an email or in a text,’ because email and text are how we communicate today. A phone call is considered safer but any cell phone can be recorded undetected.”

“To give some context, I used to work for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the most common remark I heard there was: ‘Why does NOAA need cybersecurity people?’ Well, weather and oceanic data have a significant impact on the economy. Water levels are critical for the safe shipment of products. Airline traffic controllers need real-time weather reports. Tornado warning systems need to function. Even the military requires reliable weather information—whether to sustain life and property, or for day-to-day operations and communication channels. These are just a few of the services NOAA provides that show how critical it can be if we can’t access information due to a cyberattack.”

Cyberpatriots helps students develop critical thinking and technology skills, and explore cybersecurity and computer science as potential career fields.

What advice would you give students who want to get into the cybersecurity field?

“Be curious and keep an open mind.”

“While you’re learning about cybersecurity, it is tempting to show off your skills. Be mindful of the legal and ethical implications of your work.”

“Improve your communication skills. Technical know-how can be learned and mastered. Speaking, writing, and interacting with people will take up a lot of your time.”

“Learn how to use virtual technologies so you can experiment and unleash your curiosity in an environment that doesn’t affect real people and organizations.”

You might have seen Duane Dunston on WCAX-TV or read his articles in VTDigger. He covers issues related to cybersecurity, like protecting your data, parental controls, ransomware attacks, and even protecting our democratic process. He dedicates his time to service projects that help victims of human trafficking and advocates for using technology to promote social change.

Computer Networking & Cybersecurity majors at Champlain College get started with state-of-the-art software and technology in the first semester of their first year, both in the classroom and at the The Leahy Center for Digital Investigation & Cybersecurity. Come visit our campus to find out more about what kind of opportunities Cybersecurity students get after graduation!

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