Cracking the cookie code

Cryptogram puzzles launch the Girl Scouts Cyber Challenge

Local Girl Scouts engage in STEM activities during a visit to Raytheon’s Immersive Design Center in Andover, Massachusetts. This October, Girl Scouts nationwide will test their STEM and cybersecurity skills at the organizaton's Cyber Challenge, where members will work together to solve a fictional moon colony hack.

Girl Scouts have cookies. They also have cyber codes. And now they’ve combined the two: 

Cookie codes will form one of four puzzles behind the Girl Scouts of the USA’s online cryptogram contest on Instagram.

Girl Scouts, in collaboration with Raytheon, are launching the first-ever Girl Scout Cyber Challenge, inviting 2,500 Girl Scouts in grades 6-12 to test their skills. The big event will be held on Oct. 19 at 10 Girl Scout councils across the U.S., but in the runup to the event, visitors to the organization’s Instagram page can learn about encryption by solving cryptograms.

The goal: Spark an interest in science, technology, engineering and math, the subjects known as STEM.

“The reason we chose cryptograms to promote the Cyber Challenge is because there’s something very intriguing about it — it’s exciting and spy-like. The girls will be decoding secret messages,” said Suzanne Harper, GSUSA National STEM Strategy senior director. “It’s really going to pique their interest, and it will be the same kind of thinking that the girls will be bringing to the table during the Cyber Challenge.”

The Girl Scouts will publish four cryptograms on Instagram through October, which is National Cybersecurity Awareness Month. Instructions describing how to submit answers and find out whether a submitted solution is correct will be published along with each of the Instagram cryptograms.

Anyone, not just Girl Scouts, can leave answers as comments on the page with the puzzle, and prizes will be given randomly. Girls under 18 are eligible for prizes of a tablet or a Raspberry Pi, a small computer often used by hobbyists to code at home.

“We frequently conduct cryptography challenges for recruiting new talent, and we make these extremely difficult,” said Matt Osborne, a Raytheon cyber engineer in Huntsville, Alabama, who created the cryptograms for the Instagram challenge. “In those challenges, we’re looking for the best of the best, so we make them pretty tough for professionals.”

The Girl Scout cryptograms won’t be as tough to solve, but they will serve as a fun introduction to cyber skills. Cryptograms predate computing; such coded messages have been used throughout history to hide confidential information. Today, cryptography and encryption are key elements of cybersecurity in network communications.

The cryptograms for the Girl Scouts are “puzzles are aimed at middle school and high school students without computer backgrounds,” Osborne said. “We’re trying to reach girls who haven’t considered a career in cybersecurity or science, technology, engineering and math. We want to show them STEM can be fun and (help them) see it as a possible career.”

One of the cryptograms that participants will need to solve involves decoding emojis, known as cipher text, into a solution, called plain text. They can also solve a puzzle involving Girl Scout cookies, in which a certain cookie combination has to be translated from hex to text, or hexadecimal values used in computing to ASCII, the language computers use to represent text.

“This puzzle just introduces them to concept of secret messages,” Osborne said.

The October 19 Girl Scout Cyber Challenge event will be a full-day, scenario-based competition that will engage girls in grades 6–12 in a series of cybersecurity challenges on such topics as cryptography, forensics, social engineering, and ethics. A futuristic scenario—a moon colony has been hacked—will be presented, and girls will be prompted to respond. They’ll learn cybersecurity skills and team up to identify the hackers, trace the origin of the cyber attack, and secure the colony’s safety.

Support for the Girl Scout Cyber Challenge and the launch of Girl Scouts’ first national computer science program is part of a multiyear commitment from Raytheon, which is partnering with Girl Scouts to help close the gender gap in STEM fields by helping prepare girls to pursue careers in fields like cybersecurity, computer science, artificial intelligence, and robotics. For Raytheon, this is all part of helping to build the cyber workforce of the future.

“While on a visit to Washington, D.C., I saw that a lot of focus and attention was being paid to the gender gap in cybersecurity,” Harper said, adding that goal is “opening girls' eyes to careers that they might not have otherwise known about or could imagine for themselves.”

Published On: 09/23/2019
Last Updated: 11/06/2019