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Originally published April 20, 2012 at 9:12 PM | Page modified April 20, 2012 at 10:37 PM

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UW cyber stars defending their title

An eight-member team of computer-science students from the University of Washington will try to win a cyber defense challenge for the second year in a row this weekend.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

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Somewhere in Texas right now, 30 hackers known as the Red Team are attacking a computer network called Go Mommy, using every trick to try to bring it to its knees.

Among the defenders: Eight computer-science students from the University of Washington, working to repel the attack — quite possibly while humming the "Angry Birds" theme song.

If the hackers follow the script from years past, they might taunt the students by replacing the network's home screen with a giant picture of David Hasselhoff.

Or leave a trail of empty folders to show they've gotten into the system, the first one labeled "Batman" and the subsequent folders labeled after the beats of the old TV show's theme song: da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da...

Or they might start wiping everything off the networked computers, then restart them, leaving empty shells in place of working machines.

"It's the saddest thing you've ever seen, a blank black screen with white text that says, 'System not found,' " said UW student and team member Ian Finder.

This is the world of college cybersecurity competitions, where a dose of black humor underscores an atmosphere of extreme suspicion, and the hackers dish out clever pop-culture references while trying to break the student networks with a bag of dirty tricks.

The UW team is one of the best in the country. It's one of 10 teams competing in the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in San Antonio this weekend as the defending champs, having won the competition for the first time last year. Winners will be announced Sunday.

Funny, irreverent and whip-smart, the members of the UW team say they're successful because they don't think like most network administrators do.

They're one of the few teams in the competition from a computer-science department, rather than from information technology. Instead of tackling security issues in the methodical fashion that an IT-trained engineer might use, their style is unorthodox: "Because we haven't been taught it, we don't know how not to do it," Finder said.

During the Pacific Rim regional competition in March, the winning UW team took its entire network down — "you would get fired instantly for that" in the real world, team member Miles Sackler said — then fixed it, cleaned it and put it back online.

Cybersecurity is critical because the world's financial systems and infrastructure rely on complex computer networks to operate.

In the past month, security experts have warned that at least half a dozen countries are probing U.S. corporate and military computer systems. FBI Director Robert Mueller has said cyber attacks may soon eclipse terrorism as the nation's top security threat.

A hostile country could attack the nation's power grid, or try to bring down the financial system.

"It's now recognized that the threat could be so serious as potentially causing a loss of life," said retired Gen. Harry Raduege, chairman of the Deloitte Center for Cyber Innovation and a former head of the federal Defense Information Systems Agency. "This is not just shutting down your computer, or stealing your identity." Deloitte is sponsoring the college competition.

So how do you practice for a cyber attack?

The UW team trains by setting up networks, experimenting, playing, looking for weaknesses. At the UW, "the computer-science program teaches us how to learn, and how to learn quickly and problem-solve quickly," said team member Karl Koscher.

Sometimes, opportunities to practice just pop up naturally. Team member Finder decided last week that he didn't want to come to the UW for a practice session — he thought he'd work from home, communicating with the team by chatting through his computer.

"So they took control of my chat server, and kicked me out of my own chat for the group," Finder said. "We had a little scrimmage, where I was trying to take control of my own stuff back, from my house."

During the national competition, the attacks to the UW's system will likely be passive at first. The Red Team, which is made up of private security professionals, might use a key logger to record every keystroke the students make, or put viruses on the network, or steal a database and later post it onto a website.

"Usually, at the very end, they will do all of their attacks at once," Sackler said.

Raduege called cyber security one of the most promising employment fields in the coming years. Students are asked to bring their résumés to the competition, and "they will have a lot of business cards thrust at them," he said.

As it turns out, every one of the UW team members already has either a job or a job offer. For the first time this year, they have matching shirts and team sponsors: iSEC Partners and Amazon Web Services.

To defuse the tension during competition, they often hum the theme song to "Angry Birds."

"We get through it with humor," Finder said.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.

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