Computer-savvy teenagers are testing their skills in cyber-contests designed to teach them how to protect the government and private companies from hackers.
At Baltimore's Loyola Blakefield prep school, a team of students meets after classes to practise for the Maryland Cyber Challenge being held this week. At the event, they'll have to debug viruses from their computers and defeat mock attacks by cyber criminals played by IT professionals.
"They work together as problem solvers, and they really like the challenge," school director of technology and coach of the cybersecurity team Steve Morrill said.
The contests include "Toaster Wars", an online hacking game sponsored by the National Security Agency, and CyberPatriot, a national challenge that has grown from nine teams in 2009 to more than 1200 this year.
"It's a lot like gaming because you don't know what's going to happen," student Kevin Houk said. "You always have to keep on your toes."
Houk hopes to become a "cyber warrior" one day, protecting corporate or national assets and information from foreign invaders or meddlesome hackers.
"Cyber warfare is the war of tomorrow, and we don't have enough soldiers on the cyber battlefield," he said.
The growing interest in cyber defence contests for young people comes as Pentagon officials are warning about computer attacks from China and other nations.
"The threat has evolved so quickly," Diane Miller, the director of information security and cyber initiatives for Northrop Grumman, a CyberPatriot sponsor, said.
"It really has created a sense of urgency."
The Pentagon's Cyber Command plans to expand its cyber warrior force from 900 to nearly 5000. But there's a hitch: applicants must have clean records. That means no arrests or expulsions for hacking into school computers or shutting down websites.
However, some worry that training a few highly skilled cyber warriors is less important than having lots of people with adequate knowledge on how to avoid being hacked.
Other security experts say it is the everyday mistakes that cause problems – giving a password to a colleague or leaving a laptop in a cab, airport or coffee shop.