Cyberterrorism is on the rise. These California students are learning how to fight it

High school students from across California, including Cambria and San Luis Obispo, received firsthand experience investigating a cyber attack Saturday — albeit a fake one.

The competition-like setting saw 16 teams — from the Central Coast to the Silicon Valley — compete at 2017 Cyber Innovation Challenge, hosted at the new California Cyber Training Complex at Camp San Luis.

It seemed especially prescient considering the fresh revelation that San Luis Obispo County was a target of the real thing on Election Day.

“We need to make sure we have a pipeline (of skilled cybersecurity experts), that’s why we’re part of this,” said Sid Voorakkara, a representative with the Governer’s Office, who was on hand Saturday to observe.

The challenge is a joint venture between Cal Poly and the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, with both law enforcement and military partners participating. Voorakkara said it was heartening to see teams compete not just from high tech hubs like Silicon Valley, but from more rural parts of the state as well.

Students took part in two exercises, including one that simulated an investigation into a cyber-attack plot in which students searched “suspect” vehicles for for both physical and digital evidence.

Cal Poly professor John Oliver, one of the exercise supervisors, urged students to take care with the brand new vehicles, on loan from Rancho Grande Motors, and to wear gloves while rummaging through them.

“Please, please don’t scratch or ding it. It’s me on the line here,” Oliver said.

As part of the exercise, each team had to secure a warrant to search a preassigned vehicle. The vehicles contained an assortment of evidence, and students sorted through empty soft drink bottles, table lamps and even copies of The Tribune, collecting what they found in banker’s boxes for later processing.

Though the exercise began Saturday afternoon, students were expected to work well into the night putting together an investigation timeline, which they were to present for judging Sunday.

Soon-to-be junior Ameerah Shawabkeh, 14, was a member of a team from Canyon Springs and Valley View high schools from the Moreno Valley Unified School District, one of two all-girl teams competing. She said it was her first time at the competition and that she was exciting by the learning opportunity it provided.

“I want to excel in this field,” she said, adding that she hoped to pursue a career in cyber forensics.

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7929, @andrewsheeler