The cyber-warriors of tomorrow are today still at school: young computer coders who might one day battle technology terrorists and data thieves.
Teens and college students are attending a five-day training camp for skilled programmers in Narashino, Chiba Prefecture. It aims to push them toward government and private-sector jobs.
"I'm scouting for brilliant youths," said Takayuki Yoshida, head of Symantec Japan's Cyber Defense Preparatory Office. "They will be crucial resources in times ahead."
Japan has a shortfall of about 22,000 computer security experts, according to a survey of private companies by the government-affiliated Information-Technology Protection Agency.
It needs to create a talent pool of so-called white hackers, modern-day knights whose battle skill is parsing computer code.
"Last year saw many cyber-attacks on companies and government offices. It made people take notice," said Michio Sonoda, one of the lecturers at Security Camp 2012. Sonoda is an associate professor of network security at Cyber University, set up by Softbank Corp.
Almost 300 students applied for just 40 places at the camp, which opened Aug. 14.
Seminars teach virus analysis and defense, and programmers are pitched against each other in real-life tests of online offense.
Central to the camp is a sense of morality. The first class students take is one on social responsibility. A prosecutor who specializes in cyber-attack explains that illegal access to a computer is a crime. The students examine cases where hackers were held liable to huge financial damages, and then crippled by life-long debt.
"That scared me," said Shigenaru Yamashiro, 23, who attended the inaugural Security Camp in 2004.
That week changed Yamashiro's life: "The camp helped me decide on my future career," he said.
Yamashiro is now an expert on smartphone attacks and employed by a Tokyo-based information security firm.
The camp has been held every year since then and is co-organized by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. However, this year for the first time it enlisted contributions from 26 private companies as well.
Symantec Corp., a major U.S.-based anti-virus software manufacturer, in 2011 blocked more than 5.5 billion attacks around the globe. That marks an increase of 80 percent over the year before.
In June 2012, cyber-attacks in Japan targeted government websites, including that of the Finance Ministry.
This summer Symantec is hosting a contest for teams of two to four Japanese high-school students to try to identify vulnerabilities in a given computer program. The challenge also tests their teamwork and writing skills, to identify those suited for future leadership.
Symantec operates worldwide, yet it chose Japan for this challenge.
"Japan is too complacent," explains Symantec's Yoshida. "People here are watching an explosion in cyber-attacks as if it will never affect them. 'No problem,' they insist."
Western nations have been quicker than Japan to try to train the white hackers of tomorrow. Yoshida says a deep-rooted perception that all hackers are bad is what holds Japan back.
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