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Student hackers compete to defend cyber simulation

Published: Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 23:07


Autumn Rizzo — THE BATTALION

Hacking, once a job opportunity for tech-savvy criminals, is now a career path for computer science majors. Since hacking has become a growing security threat, intelligence agencies and internet-based companies recruit young hackers from national cyber defense competitions.

Texas A&M’s Cyber-Defense team will return to the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition Finals for the fourth consecutive year. Ten teams won regional competitions to advance to the competition, which will be held April 20-22. The teams will work to protect a model business system — complete with email, servers and sales mechanisms — from hackers while maintaining regular business activities.

“We’re hired to fix an insecure system, while the [National Security Agency] ‘red team’ tries to break into the files,” said Ross Dixon, freshman computer science major. “But, since day one we walk in not knowing what’s on the computer, even the passwords to use it. We have to hack in to get the software and firewalls running.”

Texas A&M won two previous competitions in the event’s seven-year history. The University is looking for another victory this weekend in San Antonio.

“I love the challenge,” said Nik Johnson, team captain and second-year veteran of the competition. “It’s so broad a field that it’s impossible to know everything.

You have to just come up with solutions on the spot.”

The swift thinking needed to successfully protect cyber data from intruding hackers is an attribute for professionals, and the competition draws recruiters searching for this ability from across the industry.

 “The competition is important for all concerned,” said David Schulz, of Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security at UTSA. “The students build the kind of teamwork and creative thinking that can come only from out-of-classroom experiences, while businesses are provided with a next-generation pipeline of personnel to protect them against cyber attacks.”

The UTSA Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security, original designer and organizer of the competition, has partnered with cyber-security companies such as Deloitt Inc. to ensure that students can develop and capitalize on their skills early.

“Cyber crime compromises the integrity of the whole country, and teaching students to safeguard America’s infrastructure is extremely important,” Shulz said.

In the real world, hackers try to break their way through cyber strongholds to find a way into unauthorized financial data and sensitive information. At the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, contestants work together to protect a small, 50-user company, defending the business from determined hackers.

“It’s … a lot of stress,” Johnson said. “All you think about is what’s in front of you, and you have seconds to decide what to leave online and what to take off. There’s a huge penalty when a box is offline for 20 minutes, and you have to balance keeping networks safe with maintaining your score and functionality.”

Scoring, which is determined by simulated users attempting to access the company’s features, suffers severely if “customers” are locked out alongside hackers. The need for harsh, but still discretionary protective features may sound impossible for some people, but others have found in it their calling.

“It started out as a group to get involved in, but I really grew to love it,” Dixon said. “A former team member now works with the [National Security Agency], and I could see myself working in that field someday too.”


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