April 27, 2012

UW computer science students win national cyber defense competition

News and Information

Last year’s win could have been a fluke. But this year, University of Washington computer science students showed they are serious contenders in computer security when they again claimed top spot in the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition.

In 2011 they were the underdogs. This year, an article on the results referred to a UW “dynasty.”

In a contest that has roots and top teams from the military, the eight students from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering stand out. Several have bushy hair, one member wears five-toed shoes, all have a sense of humor.

“We do our best to entertain ourselves during the competition, and I think that gives us a leg up,” said senior Ian Finder, one of three students from last year’s team. “We don’t appear to take it as seriously as we do.”

Ian Finder and Lars Zornes during the competition.

Ian Finder and Lars Zornes during the competition.

“They’re a lot of fun, and they’re funny,” said Kadenko, who traveled with the team and acted as team manager and morale builder. “I am so proud of them.”

The national contest, hosted by the University of Texas at San Antonio, brought together winners of 10 regional events. It took place over two nine-hour days on April 20 and 21.

“There’s plenty of stressful moments. As a team, we shout a lot. But at the end of the day we’re cracking jokes, we’re all happy,” Finder said.

“We’re there to have fun,” Baba-Weiss said of the exhausting schedule. “As corny as it sounds, that’s why we all do it.”

Teams acted as a web hosting company, Go Mommy (a play on the popular Go Daddy web host) that had to keep their company running despite a constant barrage of attacks.

Landon Meernik (background), Cullen Walsh and Karl Koscher at this year's competition.

Contest organizers try to throw students off guard. This year’s equipment included firewall routers built by Juniper, rather than the Cisco routers that most students were familiar with.

“Right away one person from every team, which on our team was Lars, bolted out of the conference room, went up to their hotel room and started doing a crash course on Juniper routers,” Kadenko recalled.

While some teams have intense training regimens, Team Hillarious kept its laid-back style. Twice-a-week practice sessions started in January. Recruiting happened informally, as did the choice of final team members. Kadenko was responsible for securing the room in Sieg Hall, scavenging decommissioned equipment, and stocking the snack fridge.

At one point during the contest the attacking team said they would give students a short break if students sent a photo of themselves looking sad. The UW sent a photo of someone making a sad face beside a screen showing that all its systems were running smoothly.

At another point, the UW team noticed that the red team was in its system and used the opportunity to send the attackers a note with a message not fit for publication, Finder said.

In March the team took first place in the 5th Pacific Rim Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Contest, held at Highline Community College and hosted by the UW’s Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecurity.

“The first year [they won nationals] might have been a fluke,” said regional contest founder and organizer Barbara Endicott-Popovsky, research associate professor in the UW’s Information School. “To have it happen two years in a row sends a serious message about the Pacific Northwest, and I think it’s about creative problem-solving.”

She described the winning team as representing “iconoclastic Northwest geek grunge,” something she said the computer-security world could use more of.

Companies and government agencies attend a recruiting session just after the competition. But all the UW team members already have jobs at Microsoft, Boeing, Facebook and Seattle-area startups.

“I don’t think there’s a single person [on our team] that’s there for networking or job offers; that’s a bonus,” said Sackler, the team captain.

This year for the first time the winning team will also have a spot in the Capture the Flag competition at DefCon, the premier hacking conference held in Las Vegas. In three months they will try to fend off the world’s top security experts and hackers.

“We are terrified,” Sackler said. “Our goal is to keep a single machine with a working operating system at the end of that competition.”

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For more information or to reach team members, contact Kadenko at melody@cs.washington.edu or 206-616-1068.