Sweat pouring down their faces. Trying to hide, trying to seek. Fighting to be faster, stronger, smarter. To save the world or to just survive.
Down to the wire, the Cyber Padawans place their last flag and leap to victory! That’s more or less how I envision the University of Maryland-University College Jedi trainees won last year’s Cyber Olympics. The cross-continental competition looks to unify the world’s cyber defenses through intense gaming.
When you are getting robbed at your job, where you shop, where you sleep, where you bank, these are the defenders of your identity.
It’s not exactly a surprise they won. After all, UMUC has one of the world’s foremost cyber security programs with more than 4,000 undergrads. But, as department chair and Cyber Padawans advisor Jeff Tjiputra said, “there really are a lot of good teams out there. There are still a few teams that we are looking to trying to beat.”
How can you win a cyber olympics? Well, around this time last year, they started regional competitions with digital forensics analysis. And this is not like what you see on CSI: Cyber, says Tjiputra. “The cyber security field that shows up in the movies and TV are not realistic.” He says they make it look like “snap” things can be uncovered in a matter of minutes. “It is a lot of hard work and a lot of labor to get cyber security work done.”
Cyber security is a high-growth industry with many jobs. “More and more we are seeing these data breaches, the hacks, the bad people trying to steal data from companies. Somebody has to figure out what happened, why it happened, and, in some cases, they have to report that to authorities so something can be done,” Tjiputra continued. Just about every law enforcement agency has its own cyber forensics analyst, and there’s a growing trend for companies to hire in-house instead of contractors, for a faster response when things go wrong fast.
Next round, they had to perform serious system hardening, which involves finding weak spots within a system and offer fixes.
To win the North American final and go for the gold in Barcelona, the Padawans performed the best pen testing or penetration testing, where they actually got to hack into a system—which also happens to be most popular undergrad course at UMUC.
Finally, eight Padawans were thrown into the same network of dozens of servers with rival teams to play one down-and-out cyber version of Capture the Flag. Each team’s task was to find each of about 20 systems, hack into it, then you insert your long sequence of numbers and characters into the system, all while other teams are breaking in, trying to capture your flags and conquer their own territory.
Besides having fun and obvious bragging rights, students at UMUC fight to compete because it gives them a leg up over the competition.
“Cyber security is a field where when you try to get an entry-level job, they aren’t just looking for a degree, but they are also looking for experience. This will set them apart,” Tjiputra said. “I see my team members grow professionally. Over the course of several years of completing competition, they have grown to be people of a certain expertise in a certain field.”
And the experience gives the university a leg up too. “We learn what people are looking for in the field,” since the organizers and judges stand are cyber security leaders, creating real-world simulations of the newest security and privacy predators.
Then, they bring what the team members learned and influence the whole undergrad curriculum based on lessons learned by the teams of students, faculty and alumni. “It shows the students how to work in the field,” and, as every contest is unique, the school can adjust accordingly to reflect market needs. And with so many of us using the same password everywhere, with our hint questions found on our Facebook walls, we’re certainly going to need an army of Cyber Padawans to save the world, one hack at a time.