It’s your first day working in IT at a big company, and it could also be your last. The rest of the team quit last week. There’s malware on every computer in the office, management is breathing down your neck, and your own computer has been hacked. What do you do?
This is the scenario that eight UMass Boston students faced in the Northeast Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition at the University of New Hampshire. The three-day competition challenges teams to work together to fend off cyber attacks while solving “injects,” or assignments from “management” at an imaginary corporation. Ten teams competed at the regional level. The top prize is a trip to the national competition.
The UMass Boston team earned second place in the defense category and sixth place overall, the highest ranking the team has ever received. While this is UMass Boston’s fourth year participating in the NECCDC, this year’s team was made up of all rookies. Team captain Mihai Maruseac credits the team’s success to good planning and good training. “We came in with a plan, and we had really good personalities in our group.”
The most tense moment occurred when the team learned that a “Raspberry PI,” a tiny computer that can access other computers wirelessly, was hidden somewhere in the room by organizers and was used by attackers to access the internal network. This kind of unexpected twist isn’t necessarily what cybersecurity professionals encounter in the real world, but it’s all part of the thrill of the competition. “It’s all fun. . . until you get broken into!” Maruseac said.
The 10-person team, which includes two alternates, is made up of students from the Computer Science and Information Technology majors at UMass Boston. Aside from Maruseac, a PhD candidate, all team members are undergraduates. According to team mentor and Assistant Professor of Computer Science Gabriel Ghinita, “The team trained together to close the gap between students’ expertise levels.” Each team member was assigned to focus on a specific element of the challenge, like Linux firewalls, or securing databases.
On May 3, UMass Boston hosted the Massachusetts Governor's Cyber Aces Championship, an ethical hacking contest organized in collaboration with the SANS Institute. In the single-day event, individuals from universities, industry, and even local high schools raced to “capture the flag,” or find pieces of data that they needed to break into computer systems. While Maruseac was not officially entered into the competition, he ranked third overall.
Sarah Dumas, a senior Information Technology major, ranked seventh overall and was the highest-ranked woman in the competition. She is also a member of the NECCDC team.
Ghinita says this type of competition gives students additional exposure to skills they will need whether or not they end up working in cybersecurity. “It’s essential for students to have exposure to cybersecurity, regardless of the specific tech careers they follow later on.”