CanHack 2022: Teaching Students Cyber Security Skills Through Friendly Competition

​​​​​​​Read Time : 3 minutes 

With the uncertainty and disruption of the past two years, many teenagers across Canada missed out on opportunities to compete in sports, dance, music, debates and more. Fortunately, CanHack is back to nurture competitive spirits, get kids cyber savvy and help prepare them for the future.

There’s no question the typical learning environment was altered throughout the pandemic, with many starts and stops for students, parents and teachers. Tech-readiness, problem-solving and cyber security became increasingly important as essential skills needed to navigate life, work and school – today and tomorrow. CanHack develops and advances these skills while getting kids interested in future careers. And as an added bonus, it offers the opportunity to win cash prizes.

Since its launch 5 years ago, CanHack has:

  • Supported more than 6,000 secondary school students comprising of 1,567 teams from 400+ schools and community organizations
  • Administered 24 workshops with inspiring cyber security leaders for students to get hands-on training and support
  • Supported over 1,000  women-identifying participants, empowering them to lead the way in tech 
  • Distributed over $31,000 in prize money to Canadian students and schools

CanHack is an online cyber security challenge for Canadian secondary 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 and be exposed to an industry that is growing exponentially, but also learn how cybersecurity plays a pivotal role in their everyday life ,” says Naveed Tagari, DMZ Strategic Programs Specialists. “The game will be divided into a number of specific challenges spread across four levels, each advancing the story and increasing in difficulty. Participants are allowed to advance to the next level if they have correctly answered 50 per cent of a level’s questions.”

As students progress through increasingly complex levels of play, they win points for the challenges they solve. The winner of the competition is the team with the most points. 

The importance of educating 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 2020, 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.

“The rapid adoption of technology, expansion of our digital ecosystem and the move to a remote work environment have dramatically increased the size and complexity of the cyber threat surface,” says Laura Evertsen, Head of Strategic Business Development, Global Cyber Security, RBC. “As organizations have globally transformed and as Canadians spend more time online, cyber criminals are capitalizing on this digital evolution, and finding new opportunities.”

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 employees spend some days working from home and work itself becomes increasingly digital. 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.”

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.

“It is so important for today’s youth to understand how to protect their digital personas early on so they don’t open themselves up to unnecessary danger,” says Evertsen. “They need to know how to identify risky digital situations and if they do run in to trouble, they need to know what to do, including asking for help. No matter what career they pursue in the future, there will no doubt be a digital component in their work and personal lives, so learning these skills early on will set them up to be great digital citizens.”

“We hope this program instills a life-long interest in cyber security and opens new doors for students,” adds Snobar.

For more information, visit the CanHack Resource Hub