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New academy teaches 'ethical hacking'

To protect computer networks against attacks, students learn to 'think like a hacker.'

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At the brand-new Hacker Academy, here in the Windy City, students learn about phishing schemes and ping sweeps, malware, firewall breaches, and the sort of advanced Google tricks that can quickly unearth classified documents.

But it's not nearly as shady as it sounds.

The academy doesn't teach people to be hackers, but to "think like hackers" – and perhaps to stay one step ahead of them. Students here graduate with certificates in "ethical hacking."

While this might seem an oxymoron at first, the academy is the newest in a growing field of security companies that help corporations and the government keep their data safe from attacks that are increasingly sophisticated.

"Why are people scared of the word 'hacker'"? asks Aaron Cohen, a young entrepreneur who founded the academy and runs its business side. "If you're able to think like a hacker, you're able to prevent some of the attacks that are happening."

Those attacks can range from indiscriminate globe-trotting viruses – like the "I love you" virus that racked up billions of dollars in damages several years ago – to corporate spying and targeted efforts to gain sensitive data from banks, credit card companies, or individuals. Massive, headline-grabbing viruses seem to be waning, experts says, but lower profile targeted attacks are on the rise, making it ever trickier for companies to secure their networks.

"Those lone gunman hackers are still out there, though they're doing it for more explicit monetary reasons now," says Chris Painter, deputy chief of the Department of Justice's Computer Crime and Intellectual Property section. "But there are also more organized criminal groups.... If the motivations are financial, you don't want to make a big splash, so it's not surprising that what they're trying to do is more targeted."

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