Discord but not discordant: From cyber-awareness collective to online community

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Say the phrase “discord”, and it doesn’t really ring a bell with many.

 

But for those who spend a lot of time online, especially gamers, it’s a familiar presence in their lives.

 

While most who know about the free app would have used it to communicate with their guildmates and friends as they raid the latest boss in an MMORPG like World of Warcraft or an open-world action RPG like Genshin Impact, or yell at their teammates during a MOBA like League of Legends or Dota 2, there is a group of youths who is using it for another reason closer to its original purpose – to create a community of like-minded people.

 

“We decided on Discord because that’s where all of us, along with the people we want to engage, are on,” explains Amos Ng, 20.

 

Amos, who is graduating from Singapore Polytechnic’s Infocomm & Security Management course, leads the community engagement division at Cyber Youth Singapore. The collective reaches out to youths interested in keeping Singapore safe by engaging them on cyber-security issues.

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Participants in a four-day cybersecurity camp held in 2019 by CYS. Image source: Cyber Youth Singapore

Over the past few years, especially since more services have gone online due to Covid, there have been cyber attacks on many aspects of our lives, especially in the education and security sectors. If you think that it doesn’t affect you, think about this: About a quarter of us fall prey to a phishing or hacking attack at least once a year.

 

Cyber attacks have always been around; just like how we physically defend our country, we need to be digitally armed too. “It’s the same with any other field,” says Khairul Nizam, 20, who is serving his National Service, “you need to have procedures in place to safeguard everyone.”

 

Joining Amos and Khairul in the community division of Cyber Youth Singapore are Ian Chien, 20, and Hansen Lim, 20, who are both graduating from the Cybersecurity & Digital Forensics course in Nanyang Polytechnic.

 

“No matter how good your defences are, the single point of failure is always the human,” says Amos. “From our point of view, the human will always be the weakling, especially when security processes aren’t set up well.”

 

Cyber Youth Collective was set up in Sept 2019, and has about 1,200 members and six moderators, with Amos being one of the head administrators.

More than just cyber-security issues

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On the left is a list of channels, which operate like chatrooms on various topics. This is the announcement channel for moderators to send messages and announcements for the rest of the cyber community. Image source: Cyber Youth Singapore

The server is more like a virtual clubhouse where members can choose to seek advice or to catch up with their friends. They are also notified about upcoming events in the announcements channel.

 

“There are a lot of meme community servers on Discord, but we are different. We have channels that members can get advice on about everything cyber and non-cyber,” Amos says.

 

Other than just tech topics, there are text channels for members to talk about homework or to arrange for study meets at different polytechnics, game chats and voice channels for movie nights. Members can meet others who share their interests by joining a channel designated for the topic.

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Under the special interest groups, members can click on the emojis that correspond to the ones in the menu. They will be given a role (coloured tag) which gives them access to a channel of their interest. Image source: Cyber Youth Singapore

On joining the server, new members can also share which learning institute they are attending, and it would show up in their profiles. “We have people from secondary schools, IHLs (institutes of higher learning), with some serving NS and others at university,” says Amos.

 

It’s easy to tell who’s in the server with a quick glance at the role selection since the school logos are customised emojis specific to the server.

 

And to prevent spam, moderators have created specific roles that posters can tag for message updates about games, movies and virtual karaoke sessions, or just general events.

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Customised school logos and roles that members can click on so as to identify themselves and to receive messages customised for their interest groups. Image source: Cyber Youth Singapore

User can sign up on topics they are interested in and they will get messages and push notifications to inform them of the latest happenings.

 

The community is active and vibrant, where meetups, talks and even cyber workshops are held on a regular basis, Amos added.

 

These are often done in collaboration with industry professionals, who would share their thoughts for those who are interested in having a career in cybersecurity.

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A panel talk on Zoom, where industry experts share knowledge with youths on how to kickstart their career in cybersecurity. Image source: Cyber Youth Singapore

“Sometimes, there are community-initiated meetups within our server. For example, someone would come to us and say they would want to hold a Python beginner workshop, and we help them make it happen,” Amos adds.

 

The collective also emphasises peer learning, and members are encouraged to build and bond over each other’s skill sets.

“We want to group youths together, so they can connect and pick up skills from each other.”

 

“It can be quite frustrating, learning on your own,” Amos says, “sometimes, searching for solutions online is good enough, but a community is another avenue of help. It’s a good balance between Googling for information and working it out with friends.”

Community bonds

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Before Covid, participants would gather for a day of talks and activities by CYS. Image source: Facebook / Cyber Youth Singapore

For Ian, the community is an opportunity to help youths interested in cybersecurity but who have little exposure to the industry.

 

He tells The Pride: “As a kid, I was lucky. My dad had a background in tech and I was fascinated by how he used it to protect our loved ones. Thanks to him, I was exposed to cybersecurity events like Black Hat Asia and Infosec In The City.”

 

But not everyone learning the ropes of cybersecurity knows such events, he admits. “Not everyone has someone like my dad in their life, so I hope this community acts like a bridge between the students and professionals.”

 

Similarly, Hansen shares about the steep learning curve he experienced when he was studying about cybersecurity. “My polytechnic had an interest club for cybersecurity, but the entry-level skill sets were quite demanding. And when I was there, we attended competitions but there were no chances for enrichment.”

 

These experiences drove them to be part of Cyber Youth Singapore, and the Discord server followed shortly after.

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The team at the CYS annual cybersecurity camp in 2019. Image source: Cyber Youth Singapore

Cyber Youth Singapore was set up by president Ben Chua, 20. He approached cybersecurity community Div0, a network of professionals working in cybersecurity, which chipped in resources to build it.

 

That was when Ben recruited Amos, Hansen, Khairul and Ian. The group met up for the first time at ICE71, a hub dedicated to startups in the tech industry. “I’m pretty sure all of us in the room were under 21 then, but it was a common dream we had,” says Amos.

 

“We’re not paid for this (setting up CYS), but we have time and energy now. So why not?”

 

The team’s efforts quickly bore fruit. “We soon had about 200 people attending our meetups every week,” Ian recalls. “Then Covid came and really turned everything upside down.”

Surviving Covid-19

Even though Covid-19 meant more awareness over the use of technology, the tech collective also experienced setbacks. Says Ian: “We had to postpone our biggest event, CYS Summit, last year.”

 

The annual meeting for community members from the collective to exchange feedback is one of the bigger events in its lineup. Others include its annual cybersecurity camp and EAE con, an event to help students prepare a portfolio for Early Admissions Exercise into polytechnic cyber courses. Before Covid-19, all these were held physically.

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Ben opening the cybersecurity camp in 2019. Image source: Cyber Youth Singapore

Even after the circuit breaker, stringent limitations made organising in-person events nigh impossible. That was when the Discord server came in handy. “We avoided Zoom or Webex, because they’re used for lectures and lessons,” says Amos. “It feels too formal, so we moved most of our events to Discord.”

 

Now that the situation is looking up, Ian tells The Pride that the collective is looking to host its events semi-physically.

 

He says: “Now when we plan events, we have more logistics to take into account like Covid testing and safe management measures. We’re monitoring the situation, and maybe we’ll move to hybrid meetups and events in the future.”

Decoding the world of tech

When it comes to anything tech or cyber related, most would imagine sleek metal machines, or glaring numbers on screens. As a result of these stereotypes, many of us cannot identify with technology.

 

That itself is a problem, says Ian. “It’s not as cold and out of touch with humanity as we think. Tech goes hand in hand with our lifestyle. So we set our minds to redefine what ‘cyber’ means. After all, it’s about how we present the concept of technology to people.”

 

Re-packaging concepts into bite-sized information for the general public is something the collective has been doing to get everyone wiser about technology.

 

“We do hold workshops for complete beginners, for example,” Ian explains, “all you need is just a laptop and an Internet connection, and they’re free.”

 

And for those outside the cybersecurity community, the collective has an Instagram dedicated to debunking myths related to being secure online, like explaining antivirus softwares, VPNs and firewalls.

Gamification is also an effective way to get youths interested in technology.

 

“Many people get curious about what ‘Capture The Flag’ competitions are in the cyber world,” says Ian. “For example, they usually wonder if there’s an actual flag to capture, and that usually intrigues them to give it a shot.”

 

Capture-The-Flag competitions in cybersecurity are just like its physical counterpart: One team attacks their opponent’s defences with the aim to capture their base, while protecting their own from the opponent’s incursions.

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Participants in a capture-the-flag activity. Image source: Facebook / Cyber Youth Singapore

“We are also looking into using multimedia and infocomm tech, like virtual reality and games,” he adds.

 

And of course, tech can come in handy for vulnerable communities, too.

 

“In one of our summits, we explored ways to help vulnerable groups,” Khairul shares. “We all agreed tech was a big tool that we can utilise to aid them, so we were looking into that.”

Upcoming plans

Last year’s CYSummit’20, Singapore’s first cybersecurity summit for youths, had to be postponed and will happen from 21 to 24 June.

 

Even though the four youths now have events dotted all over their calendars, the satisfaction they get from a successful event outweighs the hard work they put in.

 

“Individually, there is only so much we can do to organise an event,” Ian adds, “so we plan it and do it together.”

 

“When you have a lot of people who share your dream contributing to your project, everyone’s experience always helps.”

 

Check out the CYS Discord server at http://go.cyberyouth.sg/discord