Kyle Ondracek, 17, joined a group of a hundred Winnipeg students who spent Tuesday trying to unravel a cyberthreat.

Even though he was looking through code and system files to see if anything was out of place, the Grade 12 student at Winnipeg's Dakota Collegiate wasn't trying to deal with WannaCry, the latest ransomware threat.

But he was learning what it's like for people who do solve real-life cyberattacks.

Students learn hands-on cybersecurity skills2:07

"For example, we had one called Tine — tine.exe — which is never there in a normal Windows setting, so we got rid of it. It wasn't supposed to be there," said Ondracek.

Finding files that aren't supposed to be there and information flowing to IP addresses that aren't internal was all part of a real-time scenario developed to challenge students for the sixth annual Canadian Cyber Defence Challenge, held at the RBC Convention Centre in Winnipeg on Tuesday.

Organized by a not-for-profit group of IT professionals and educators, the challenge offers an event-based learning opportunity that aims to teach students about the basics of cybersecurity.

During the six-hour challenge, students work in teams to deal with simulated cybersecurity threats. This year, 20 teams from Winnipeg and four virtual teams from Edmonton and Vancouver competed to solve the digital riddle.

AUGUSTINE

Kerry Augustine, CEO and president of the Canadian Cyber Defence Challenge, talks to reporters outside Tuesday's challenge at the RBC Convention Centre in Winnipeg. (CBC)

Kerry Augustine, who leads the challenge, says it's technical knowledge that students should have in the era of the internet of things.

"We want these students to appreciate and understand that sometimes the weakest link in the chain is not the technology, it's the person," said Augustine.

He said the coincidental timing of the WannaCry ransomware cyberattack — which began wreaking havoc on companies and governments around the globe a few days ago — may heighten awareness of cybersecurity. But he said attacks aren't new and we'll see more.

"Technology continues to evolve but there is also a growing challenge of ignorance going on in the communities as well, [the] business community," Augustine said.

"The types of attacks are becoming more sophisticated, but the awareness of how to protect your data, your information, your identity, isn't really being as emphasized and keeping up with the advances on the technology."

Jared

Jared Bater discusses some of the technical aspects of Tuesday's cyber defence challenge with a student. (CBC)

Jared Bater agrees. He works in networking and is the chief technical architect of the Canadian Cyber Defence Challenge — it was his team that designed the network and the technical challenges involved.

He said they spent hundreds of volunteer hours to design this year's challenge because they believe it's an important opportunity for young students.

"Poor IT security practices are not going to change. We're always going to have the low-hanging fruit. So this is an interesting opportunity for students to really sink their teeth into it," said Bater.

Bater said Tuesday's challenge offered an important window into the digital world for students of all skill levels.

"IT and IT security and all that is not some big professional thing. You can start small. As long you stay curious and are really interested in what you're doing, you can start small and do really, really fun things," said Bater.

Olivia

Olivia Ferreira, 17, works with classmates from Tec Voc High School at the Canadian Cyber Defence Challenge. (CBC)

That's exactly what Olivia Ferreira, 17, said she was getting out of the day. The Grade 12 student from Tec Voc takes software development classes in her Winnipeg high school and likes programming and web development.

She plans to study pre-med at the University of Winnipeg in the fall, but said going through a difficult process like the cybersecurity challenge gives her an opportunity to prove to herself that she'd be able to handle the stresses of a career in computer science.

"Learning to deal with that pressure and still working," was key, she said.

"We're running into a lot of problems and we still have to figure out how to keep going. You can't just stop and come back to it. You need to deal with it right now."

Augustine said the event tries to reach out to students who are interested in any discipline to enforce the importance of personal cybersecurity. The organization would like to grow the event to include students from younger grade levels.

Ondracek said he isn't sure if he's looking for a career in cybersecurity but he sees value in having a better understanding of the potential issues.

"It's like putting a lock on your front door. If you don't have a lock than anyone can walk in, and knowing computer security is like putting that lock on your front door," he said.

Challenge

Students at the sixth annual Canadian Cyber Defence Challenge work through a simulated cybersecurity threat. (CBC)