Hacking whizz-kid to speak at ST forum

Reuben Paul stunned a conference in the Netherlands in May by hacking into a "smart" teddy bear, turning it into a spying device. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

11-year-old cyber warrior will talk about how children can deal with cyberage challenges

Who should you call if an unseen hacker begins controlling your child's smart toys? Probably 11-year-old Reuben Paul.

The sixth grader in Austin, Texas - a son of immigrants from India - is sought after across the world for his hacking skills.

He will be demonstrating how vulnerable technology makes us - and how to deal with it - in Singapore on Dec 5 and 6.

He will be speaking at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum on Dec 5, and at the National Library the next day, where his five-year-old brother Ittai will be making his debut on stage.

The message: that age is no barrier to learning, and children can empower themselves to deal with the challenges of a cyberage.

That is the vision of CyberShaolin, the non-profit organisation started by him and his father, Mr Mano Paul, 40. Its mission is to educate, equip and empower children and adults with knowledge of cyber dangers and defences.

CyberShaolin was spawned when Reuben was nine and already speaking at international conferences on hacking and cyber security.

He decided he wanted to help children free of charge and have them on the side of the good guys, when they started writing to him saying they wanted to learn from him and be like him. But mostly, they wanted to learn how to hack.

Reuben puts up educational videos on cyber-security concepts on CyberShaolin's website.

Mr Paul said followers earn badges as they learn and demonstrate understanding of the concepts. They are also awarded belts - from a cyber white belt to a cyber black belt.

Reuben hopes that one day, CyberShaolin will be "the Khan Academy of cyber security", but he recognises that the dream will need the support of philanthropists, donors and the community to become a reality.

 

Khan Academy, the non-profit educational organisation created in 2006 by educator Salman Khan, became a phenomenon on the Internet with its educational videos, which are supplemented with exercises.

Reuben is a student at the Kelly Lane Middle School in Pflugerville, a suburb of Austin.

Recognising his aptitude, his school counsellor and principal encouraged him to test for maths credits, administered through the University of Texas, and he passed.

Though he is in sixth grade, he is now taking advanced seventh-and eighth-grade maths classes.

He has also seemingly boundless curiosity, and takes his studies seriously. When asked what his favourite subject is, he replied that there is not a single subject he does not like.

His daily routine is packed.

Apart from school, he has gymnastics classes for up to four hours every day and practises gongfu with his father at the weekend.

He became America's youngest Shaolin-Do Kung Fu black-belt holder at seven.

He also has inline hockey and swimming lessons with his brother, and the two of them also take piano and drum classes.

"Whenever I am back home, I try to research more on cyber security with my dad, and during the weekends, we do a lot of our hacking and testing with new technologies," he said in a video interview.

"Dad is a big part of this, because he used to train people in cyber security for his job, and I used to listen in and learn," he said.

Mr Paul, who received his first qualification - in zoology - in Chennai, India, initially worked as a shark researcher in the Bimini islands in the Bahamas. He later settled in Oklahoma, where he received his business administration degree in management information systems.

Reuben, who has been speaking in public since the age of eight, is concerned about the vulnerability of societies. In May, he stunned the audience at the International One conference in the Netherlands by hacking into a "smart" teddy bear, turning an innocuous toy into a creepy spying device.

He is perfecting a new experiment for the Singapore talk.

"Everything is connected and moving together - smart toys, smart cars and smart devices for homes that turn them into game rooms so kids can play," said Reuben. "I am going to be talking about cyberwar games and how kids are pulled into cyberwar."

When asked what his ambition is, he told The Straits Times: "I want to be a spy for a government agency."

And he added with a mischievous grin: "A businessman by day, and a cyberspy by night."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2017, with the headline 'Hacking whizz-kid to speak at ST forum'. Print Edition | Subscribe