Cincy Science: Under attack from hackers? Consider calling the NKU Cyber Defense Team

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. - Cyber crime is a nightmare come true for corporations, institutions and governments. So, who you gonna call when under attack? Start locally, with students at Northern Kentucky University.

While many colleges were immersed in March Madness, NKU took first place in the Midwest Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (CCDC)  held in Chicago. 

NKU bested ten teams from nine states by successfully defending a corporate-style network while under sustained attack during the two days simulation.

As the regional winner, NKU will move on to compete in the national championship  April 25 to 27 in San Antonio, Texas.

“This is one of the finest teams that has played in the CCDC in the past several years or maybe the whole history of the CCDC,” said CCDC Midwest regional organizer David Durkee. “They really did remarkably well.”

“When we won we were overjoyed,” said team co-captain Ashley Huffman. “This is the first time our team has ever placed first in the Midwest region. All in all it was really everyone coming together to make a cohesive unit and working really hard. Now we are on to the nationals and are training hard to hopefully bring home a national win for NKU.”

Bragging rights

Although NKU lost the state competition earlier in the year to the University of Louisville, the team qualified as the wildcard entry based on what Durkee described as a "razor thin" margin between the two teams. Team captain Lee Epling explained earning the spot helped generate momentum going into the regionals.

“Knowing that there was such a tiny margin between us and Louisville to actually get the wildcard spot, it mentally was huge,” he said. “And once we won first place, it made it seem like even more of a big deal to have someone like us come in as a wildcard.”

Started in 2006, CCDC brings together industry experts from across the country to challenge students by testing them with real life scenarios Durkee explained. He said the experience goes above and beyond theory in a classroom to give students a realistic look at what the job entails. Durkee described the simulation as getting five years of experience in just two days.

The team includes:

  • Lee Epling, captain
  • Ashley Huffman, co-captain
  • Brandon Hinkel
  • Joshua Howard
  • Jack Lannon
  • Paul Sparks
  • Nick Wade
  • Brandon Warner
  • Jeffery Cundiff
  • Michael Parton

“It’s very common that students will say, 'I had no idea what this whole field was about until I went to the competition,'” he said.

Self-directed students

Yi Hu, faculty advisor and associate computer science professor, described the two-day competition as a rigorous simulation of working at a real ecommerce company. Teams were responsible for tasks such as loading new systems, taking ecommerce orders and completing reports for management, all while defending their network from relentless attacks from hackers. Hu said the team began training for the competition last September by meeting each Friday to set up simulated networks.

“It’s really intense,” he said. “Not only do you need to fix a system, you need to defend a system and finish a lot of tasks. So that’s how the competition was organized.”

NKU offers minors in information security and computer forensics  as part of its computer science degree program. While NKU doesn't specifically offer a major in security, Hu said the college features more than a dozen courses to train them in cyber defense.

While classroom and coaching helped train the team, Hu credit his student's hard work and ongoing dedication for their recent victory. The more the group works together, they continue to grow in proficiency he said. Last year the team placed third in CCDC, then went on to win the inaugural Cyber Wars competition in May of 2013.

“I’m so glad we have a group of talent and self-motivated students because--although sometimes there is a professor like me to give them training--most times they just found some complicated problems and studied on their own,” he said.

"Insanely intense"

Judges scored the competition based on three elements:

  1. How well a team defends the network and fixes system vulnerabilities
  2. How well a team keeps critical business services running while under attack
  3. How many assigned business tasks are completed

During the competition, Durkee said the industry experts on both the judging team (white team) and the hacking team (red team) relentlessly bombarded students (blue team), aiming to disrupt their network and daily operations.

“It was insanely intense from the very start,” Epling said. “All the systems we had were completely compromised and the entire time was just spent trying to keep somewhat clean and working and also handle all sorts of business tasks we had. It felt like we could never stop because there was always something else we had to deal with or else we dealt with earlier that was coming back to fight us.”

While the competition hones cyber skills, it also focuses on developing soft skills among team members, Durkee

said. As part of the competition, all students submitted resumes and took part in interview sessions with corporate sponsors. He said it’s not uncommon for students to get job offers as sponsors attend the competition in order to hire talent.

“So it’s kind of a win, win,” Durkee said. “They’re participating in the CCDC to build up their skills and make themselves more employable and the sponsors are looking for highly qualified students.”

Looking ahead

For those looking for a career in IT, especially in cyber defense, Epling calls the CCDC an important opportunity to learn the business first-hand.

“I would like to say it’s probably one of the most valuable things we can do since a lot of us are just starting out in security and IT,” he said. “This is a first look at what we might actually expect working in the field - you get a lot of great experience in a very small amount of time.”

For the national competition, Durkee said the bar will be raised even higher with industry experts from around the country taking on the students. Epling said he and his teammates have been preparing by trying to create even more challenging scenarios as part of their own simulations. He hopes their team will perform as it did in last competition, staying calm and focused even while under intense pressure.

The team’s trip to the regional competition was sponsored by Cisco Systems Inc., Cincinnati Bell Technology Solutions (CBTS) and the NKU Center for Applied Informatics. The Center for Systems Security and Information Assurance will sponsor the students' trip to the national competition.

Check back next Wednesday for another "Cincy Science!"

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