‘Hacker in Residence’ Uses Passion for Cyber Security to Inspire the Next Generation of Internet Guardians

By Kathryn McDonald

In the Spring of 2021, Cedarville University welcomed Benjamin Sprague as an adjunct professor in the School of Engineering and Computer Science.

Sprague is serving in a temporary position as Cyber Visiting Professor and Fellow, a role which allows him to be on staff as a professor for a short period of time before returning to his career in cyber security.

They affectionately call him the “hacker in residence.”

Dr. Seth Hamman, a colleague in the School of Engineering and Computer Science, explains that although Sprague has been involved with the school in the past in smaller roles, to have him here as a visiting professor is a huge blessing.

“He brings real world experience, passion for cybersecurity and a lot of technical depth and skills that add to our classes,” Hamman said. “Not only that, but he uses his cyber security knowledge to support Christian ministries, which is great for our students to see.”

Within the school, Sprague is focused on developing different classes within the Cyber Operations Major, which was added as a program in 2020. Sprague teaches a cyber operations class and is co-teaching a class on software security. In addition to his role in the classroom, he also advises a senior design team where he works with four students who are building a product.

Hamman explained that Sprague’s real-world skills are what make him so outstanding. His teaching is informed by experience with different principles that he used and applied to his own projects.

For example, Sprague can easily explain the concept of cryptocurrency to his students because he has designed his own cryptocurrency. The how and why of cryptocurrency then becomes an explanation of the technical aspects behind it.

“Ben brings a great technical depth and deeper understanding to each class he teaches, which is exactly what our students are looking for,” Hamman said. Sprague hopes to contribute to the development of programs that will be impacting students for a long time to come. “One of my goals is to create some labs and things that will be reusable in the future by other people,” Sprague said.

Sprague was one of six students who graduated from Cedarville in 2006 in the first computer engineering class. He attended graduate school at Northern Illinois University where he studied physics. There he worked with the Particle Accelerator and Astrophysics Group. After beginning a Ph.D., Sprague’s academic advisor passed away, propelling him to look for a job outside of physics. Sprague said that even through this unexpected season, God clearly worked in his life to allow opportunities to serve Him in unique ways.

Returning to computer science, Sprague began working for a company in Cincinnati and stayed for 11 years. He worked in a variety of roles doing everything computer-related. As he works in a new role at a local start-up and teaches at Cedarville, Sprague realized that these years provided valuable learning experiences that he is still benefiting from today.

Patrick Dudenhofer, assistant professor of Computer Science and Cyber Operations at Cedarville, said as he has co-taught with Sprague this semester, one of his greatest joys has been tag-teaming with Sprague to answer students’ questions.

“His perspective comes from his experience in industry whereas mine comes from being in a classroom for several years,” he said.

Dudenhofer said as he thinks about the character that Sprague embodies in his personal and professional life, he would point to Proverbs 22:29, which says, “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.”

“It is neat working with him because you can see that he is so skilled at the things that he does,” Dudenhofer said. “That overflows in what he does and when he interacts with students.”

With his background in computer science, Sprague developed the skills that make him a good hacker. He explained hacking is about understanding a program better than the person who originally made it so that you can exploit the weaknesses and break through a program’s defenses.

For people who want to become a good hacker, the first step is to put things together before you try taking them apart or looking for flaws in the system. Sprague’s ability to design and develop programs allows him to sharpen his skills as a hacker, which enables him to work in a defensive role in cyber security.

The program at Cedarville puts an emphasis on examining the ethics that undergird the practical applications of hacking in the real world.

“Ethics plays a big role in it,” Sprague said. “We have to start the semester with, ‘Don’t do this unless you have permission.’”

Professional hackers should get permission from either the target or from a government to make it legal.

Preparing students for work in their fields requires thinking through ethical dilemmas. Integrity in conduct is one of Cedarville’s core values. It’s a value that Cedarville hopes to encourage in its students, even after they graduate. Thinking through acting with integrity in cybersecurity requires wisdom. “Some things are legal but unethical. Some things are ethical but not legal,” Sprague said.

Sprague said that he hopes his students are looking to see how they can use their knowledge of hacking for good. A lot of the good uses of hacking are related to identifying problems in a website or device so they can be fixed. Hacking is viewed as a “black art,” which means hackers make things happen. However, the reality is that hackers use subtle mistakes to subvert the design of the tool.

Sprague explained how he has used his hacking skills in some unique ways for kingdom work. “Hacking for missions. It’s a thing!” Sprague said.

He explained that he helped the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism identify and resolve different potential threats in their websites. Sprague said that work is ultimately about helping ABWE keep its colleagues safe. “I did it because I cared about protecting their missionaries,” he said.

He said that there are strong adversaries who are looking for opportunities to take advantage of the systems that organizations like ABWE use. This can compromise the safety of their partners in ministry. Sprague sees opportunities like this as opportunities to use his talents to the glory of God.

Demonstrating to his students that computer science is an outlet for ministry is something that Sprague said is important to him. As students are given knowledge and develop their skills, he hopes they are also encouraged that their faith can make an impact in the real world. “I just want to live that out,” Sprague said.

Sprague also realizes his position in training young people is an opportunity to multiply gospel impact. He wants to help a missions organization with their security, but there is a greater need for even more skilled workers who will leverage their skills for the gospel. He hopes that his students will “do good with the skills they’ve learned.”

As someone who has been working in this field for a long time, Sprague said he hopes “that the students’ faith would be rooted in the reality of who Jesus is even in the dark parts.” Sprague explained, “We don’t necessarily hang out in lots of dark alleys, but we have to know about them.” And it is important for them to know what to do when they encounter that darkness. “Christianity isn’t just about doing the right thing when you’re around the nice crowd,” Sprague said. It is rooted in the truth that Christ is our “hope for life.”

Sprague also explained that cyber security defense and personal spiritual defense have a lot of parallels.

“They’re so obvious they’re almost corny,” Sprague said. “I would like to see in students the ability to defend themselves against attacks.” The Enemy does the same things to us that a hacker does with a vulnerability: He exploits our flaws to his advantage.

“I’ve seen it happen in Christians that are my friends,” he said. “I want that to not happen to my students in their future.”

Kathryn McDonald is a junior Psychology major and a Campus News writer for Cedars. When she’s not at her desk studying, you can probably catch her in the library writing a letter to a friend, reading her favorite American poetry or drinking coffee from her favorite mug

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