By Jim Finkle
BOSTON (Reuters) - Children as young as eight years old are invited to Las Vegas this summer to learn that it's cool to be a hacker -- provided they don't cheat, steal or commit other crimes.
The first-ever Defcon Kids conference in August is a chance for children between eight and 16 to learn the skills of computer hackers, as well as protect themselves against cyber attacks.
It will also be an opportunity for U.S. federal agents to size up tech-savvy youngsters who could form the next generation of digital crime-fighters.
Police, intelligence agents, military officers and the consultants working for them have long attended as well as recruited from Defcon, the world's biggest gathering of hackers held in Las Vegas every summer.
This year, against a backdrop of high-profile cyber attacks on targets ranging from Google Inc to the International Monetary Fund, Defcon organizers are holding Defcon Kids on August 6 and 7 alongside the main conference. Kids need to register in advance at www.defconkids.org to be able to participate in some conference activities.
One goal of Defcon Kids is to convince children from age 8 to 16 that it is cool to be a "white hat," or benevolent hacker who uses computer skills to fight crime.
"Black hats," in contrast, work on the dark side of the Internet, using their skills to steal money, identities and other perform nefarious deeds.
"Hacking isn't just fun and games. It isn't about breaking into systems," said a 16-year-old who goes by the hacker handle "FS." He will teach Defcon Kids how to protect against Internet spies who sniff wireless networks for private data. (www.defconkids.org).
"It's about securing yourself and the people around you," said FS, who gets paid by companies to conduct penetration testing, which is breaking into computer networks to uncover vulnerabilities.
Like many hackers, FS uses a handle rather than his real name to protect himself from being targeted by black hats.
Such names have special meaning for hackers, who often keep their significance secret. FS stands for forty seven, which is code for the initials of his real name, which FS declined to disclose.
Law enforcement around the world is scrambling to combat cyber crime, and each week seems to brings a new attack -- from activists promoting a cause, to more serious security breaches and data thefts at Sony Corp or Citigroup.
Some of the world's most elite hackers have volunteered to teach at Defcon Kids, running sessions on basic computer programing, lock picking and puzzle solving. A course in hardware hacking, for example, will show children how to modify a circuit board so it plays the game "Simon."
"CyFi," a 10-year-old Girl Scout whose identity has been stolen twice, is helping to organize the conference. Her personal agenda is to network with other young hackers, advance her lock-picking skills and meet real federal agents while she's there.
"Most of the time when people think of hacking, they think 'Oh that's a bad thing,'" she said. "I want to get more people to become good hackers and to have fun doing it."
While she has few friends who share her passion for hacking, CyFi is a fan of a website called CryptoKids (www.nsa.gov/kids) managed by the National Security Agency.
The highly secretive NSA, which runs spying operations for the U.S. government, tries to make hacking cool on the website by offering for download coloring books for the young, video games, and tips on breaking codes for older hackers.
Cartoon characters on the website include the code-breaking team of Crypto Cat and Decipher Dog, as well as Cyndi, a fictional hardware hacker who loves to figure out how gadgets work.
Defcon Kids will learn how white hats use Google's search engine to find confidential information that is exposed over the public Internet. But they won't cross the line into illegal activity by forcing their way into private sites.
"It will give the kids an avenue to practice certain skills without the fear of getting into trouble," said Chris Hadnagy, one of the Defcon Kids instructors.
That doesn't mean they won't have fun.
"We want to expose kids at an earlier age to the wonders of taking things apart and making them do things that they weren't intended to do," said Jeff Moss, Defcon's founder.
(Reporting by Jim Finkle; Editing by Tiffany Wu, Steve Orlofsky and Bernard Orr)