UW cyber team plays defense on a national level
For the fourth year in a row, a team of eight University of Washington students will compete in the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, in which teams from around the country attempt to shield a computer system from professional hackers.
Seattle Times staff reporter
A team of eight University of Washington students will wage war this weekend against an expert force, defending their territory with stealth tactics and on-the-fly invention.
But there are no physical weapons involved. There's not even a physical battleground.
For the fourth year in a row, the team will compete in the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, in which teams from around the country attempt to shield a computer system from professional hackers aiming to cause havoc ranging from stealing trade secrets to turning home pages into random YouTube videos.
To qualify for nationals, the UW team triumphed over seven other teams at a regional competition in March.
The national event takes place in San Antonio, Texas, and runs Friday through Sunday.
Organizers and sponsors created the competition to educate the next generation of cyberguards against increasingly dangerous security threats.
"The bad guys that are attacking our systems, they don't really care whether the web address ends with .gov, .edu, .com; it's all the same to them," said Barbara Endicott-Popovsky, an associate research professor at UW who founded the regional competition. "We are in an interconnected world and what concerns me is that society doesn't get it."
All nine teams aim to trounce cyber intruders, but, unlike many of their competitors, the UW team of computer-science and engineering students does so without formal training in that area. Instead, its members rely on knowledge from years of learning cyber defense for fun.
Unlike many of their competitors on the national level, they have no adviser or school funds to fall back on; they're completely self-organized and self-financed. They meet in Room 326 in UW's Sieg Hall, a small room no one else wants with concrete floors and yellowed paint chipping off the walls.
Team captain Alexei Czeskis, a fourth-year Ph.D. student who helped found the team in 2008, said the team's unofficial status helps and hurts during competitions.
"The pros are we're able to be inventive, we're able to be spontaneous," the 26-year-old said. "The cons are we don't have the standard training, equipment or manuals."
Other teams competing at nationals use school funds to buy devices they'll encounter during the competition. To counter contraptions the UW team has never used before, they often bypass established approaches.
"We invent our own box and then have to think outside of it," said Baron Oldenburg, a junior majoring in computer engineering.
That quick thinking won them this year's regional competition.
The team was defending a fake gaming company's website and computer system from the Red Team, a group of professionals from the Navy, Boeing and other companies masquerading as the bad guys.
At one point, a Red Team member slashed into the UW team's system and deleted all of its site's information so the pages appeared blank. But the hacking attempt was laughable. Not only had the team backed up all the data, it also coded a program on the fly that detected any change to the website's appearance. The attack was caught and the site restored in 30 seconds.
"In the amount of time it took [the Red Team] to call us on the phone and gloat, it was back up,"said Ian Finder, a computer-engineering junior.
They watched through a window into the next room as the Red Team hacker released a string of expletives and hurled his can of soda in frustration.
Regionals were professional and educational, Czeskis said, but also lighthearted. The UW team even "procured" a Red Team member's identifying badge to taunt the enemy.
The national competition has a different tone. Each team there has beaten out a slew of other competitors, and, in its four years competing, the UW team has yet to place.
"It's much more intense," Czeskis said. "The adrenaline is running the whole time."
Unlike regionals, there are no designated breaks. One year, team members ordered pizza and took turns going out into the hall to gulp down a slice because they couldn't bring food into the room.
One mistake can be fatal. At the 2009 nationals, a UW team member accidentally tripped over a power cord, unplugging a computer while it was updating.
"That killed the competition for us," said Karl Koscher, a fourth-year Ph.D. student who helped form the team.
Despite the team's history, Czeskis said he thinks they'll do better this time around. White boards hanging in Room 326 sported blue scribbles detailing who will handle specific tasks at the competition.
"This year we're somewhat more organized," he said.
He added with a smile: "We're actually writing stuff down."
Brittney Wong: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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