Why the Girl Scouts Are Learning to Pick Locks and Hack Computers

Forget cookies. America's Girl Scouts are learning to pick locks and hack computers as an inside track toward careers in science and tech

Joe Pappalardo

Laura Genung works the sliver of metal inside a padlock, probing the pins inside. “I’m so close I can feel it,” the 17-year-old Girl Scout says, exasperated.

This catches the attention of her lockpicking instructor, Kellie Robinson. Robinson has come to this Cyber Camp at Collin College, a community college just outside of Dallas, to steer young girls toward the booming information security profession. She’s been running a lockpicking program at monthly Dallas Hackers Association meetings for two years and does presentations at information security conferences. But teaching Girl Scouts to pick locks, hack computers, break zip-ties, and escape handcuffs is something new.

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“If you let off the tensioner, those pins will drop,” Robinson tells Genung. “Just take a deep breath, chill for a minute. Tell yourself it’s just a lock.” A few minutes later, her pupil cries out in triumph as the lock pops open in her hand.

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Hacking for Good

This weeklong Girl Scout Cyber Camp is the first in the region and among the first in the nation. Soon the badges will follow. The Girl Scouts, along with Palo Alto Networks, will be unveiling its official for Daisy, Brownie and Junior (grades K through 5) Girl Scouts this summer. Badges for Cadettes, Seniors, and Ambassadors (grades 6 to 12) will roll out in 2019.

These camps are at the forefront of the movement to build a conduit for Girl Scouts and and careers in science, engineering, science and math (STEM.) “I'm hoping I'm showing young women like the Girl Scouts that they can become leaders in this field," Robinson says. “And that it goes so far beyond just sitting at a computer.”

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Kory Peal

The connection between lockpicking and hacking is stronger than you might think. Both skills can be used for productive or for nefarious reasons. And like a hacker, a good picker doesn’t break the lock with brute force but with subtlety and finesse.

Of course, the Cyber Campers are told not to pick locks that are not theirs without permission, and taught that the hacking skills they learn are to be used for good, to protect people against malicious “black hat” types. But this is about more than ethics. It’s about opening their eyes to future careers.

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"You can’t hack before you know how things are put together.”

“There is a growing crisis in confidence among young girls, particularly when it comes to STEM education and the pursuit of STEM careers,” says Amanda Duquette, the chief marketing officer of the Girl Scouts of Texas. “As the largest girls leadership development program in the country, Girl Scouts is poised to fill this gap.”

Guardians in Sashes

Joe Pappalardo
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William Whitney is a Collin College professor and the designer of the Cyber Camp curriculum who does contract work for cities trying to protect their utilities from hackers and cyber saboteurs. “I’m in the midst of a penetration test on a powerplant,” he says as the Girl Scouts work their locks. “In fact, I have to go there after this.”

“Just take a deep breath, chill for a minute. Tell yourself it’s just a lock.”

Whitney’s Cyber Camp curriculum starts with hardware, although not the kind with padlocks and rake picks. He walks his students through electrical theory and instructs them on physically cabling computers before they move on to anything else. “They say, ‘I thought we came here to hack,’” he says. “But you can’t hack before you know how things are put together.”

The hacking happens within a small network that is set up in a single room. The scouts use Kali Linux penetration testing software to learn hacking skills. The girls have laptops and duck in and out of a central server, learning some common exploits and how to guard against them.

Joe Pappalardo

“The hacking part is hard if you do what you’re supposed to do,” Whitney says. “Take that back home and teach your parents.”

One part of his lesson plan is to show the campers how much information is available if left unprotected on public servers. The demonstration is dramatic: He uses entirely legal methods to see photos, music selections, and other information from actual strangers. “If I can access this, so can everybody else,” Whitney says.

For Mikaela Lawrence, 13, this is an early step toward her future. Asked what she wants to do when she grows up, she says “robotics engineer” without hesitation. She knows the coding and hands-on work with computers at Cyber Camp will help attain this dream, but she picked up other practical lessons during the week.

Not only did she learn how to pick locks, she got an eye-opener when she watched a stranger open someone unprotected photos. “I need to be safer,” she says. “And I definitely need more complex passwords.”

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