GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A group of hackers took over downtown Grand Rapids Wednesday, attacking virtual systems and devising new ways to defend others. 

Your security isn’t in danger. The hackers were practicing at the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology as part of its 7th annual Purple Event.

Abraham Jones, a member of the WMCAT steering committee, said the event gives hackers a rare opportunity to legally do what they’re good at.

“Individuals can come to this facility and actually train in a safe space,” Jones said. “Where you can be sure you’re not going go to prison if you’re doing a lot of these activities.”

WMCAT’s Cyber Hub is among six in Michigan, but it’s the only of its kind in West Michigan that isn’t affiliated with a school or military operation, giving members unprecedented access. Cyber Hub program manager Anthony Tuttle said there are few barriers to entry.

“Whether you are a college student or recent graduate, entry-level employee all the way up to the technical expert — we’re not age-specific, we’re not employment-specific, we’re not industry- or sector-specific,” Tuttle said. “By reducing those barriers, the better we’ll be able to prepare people for careers in IT and cyber security.”

Tuttle envisions a pipeline coming out of WMCAT that keeps talent local. 

“In working with these local organizations, they can find those qualified individuals and keep that talent here in West Michigan, as well, because there is such a shortage,” Tuttle said. “People who can do this work are in very high demand. Building them up so they leave West Michigan is the unfortunate side effect.”

At the Purple Event, eight teams of four assembled to take on hacking tasks ranging from easy to difficult, all competing for the attention of regional employers and opportunities within WMCAT. Jones said the competition brings out the best in the hackers.

“There’s questions that they have to answer and they have to do this in certain times and the more that they get, they get flags. And if they have the higher number, that means they’re going to be in the lead,” Jones said. “It’s really about a meeting of the minds.”

For the first time, the event also included virtual hacking. Ferris State University student Jacob Buoy, 24, designed a virtual reality program in which a headset takes users inside a military installation to see what hackers are working on in real time. 

“So when they hack the lights off in a building, it would just say ‘lights off in the building.’ But now you have a visual representation of it,” Buoy explained. “It’s very cooperative. A VR player is going to have to sneak into a building, let’s say, but the door of the building is locked; it’s up to the hacker team to unlock that building for them.”

Buoy said his program highlights visually why it’s so important for businesses and agencies to have secure systems and the dangers if they don’t.

Jones said WMCAT’s Cyber Hub is always looking for interested individuals and has more events scheduled soon. 

“We have a facility that’s already prebuilt. It has all the components you need and has the knowledge base to pull from,” Jones said. “What we have here is truly ideal.”


West Michigan Cyber Security Consortium