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CyberDawgs fetch national title

U of Maryland, Baltimore County is National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition champ

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County "CyberDawgs" discuss strategy during the NCCDC championships in San Antonio, Texas.

Cybersecurity is serious business.

So on April Fool's Day, when members of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County student team dressed their heads in tinfoil during a regional cyber contest, their coach “wasn’t happy.”

“At first, I was not delighted about the tinfoil hats; they told me it was keeping the [opposition] red team from stealing their thoughts,” said Charles Nicholas, UMBC professor of computer science. “Then I thought, if this helps them deal with stress, then I didn’t object. This is a competition, not the real world."

It would have been different if people's data and dollars were at risk, according to Nicholas.  "Cyber in the real world isn’t a game, and you have to deal with even more pressure,” he said.

Not that the team doesn't know how to win. The UMBC “CyberDawgs” bested nine other top college and university teams from across the nation to become the 2017 champions of the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, and they did it without tinfoil hats.

The win at the finals in San Antonio earned them more than bragging rights as the best in the nation: Raytheon is bringing the team to Washington, D.C., Aug. 22-24, to tour the nation’s top cyber research and national cybersecurity sites with visits to the White House, the Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service and Raytheon’s own labs, among others. Raytheon has presented and sponsored the competition for the past four years.

“Unlike the University of Central Florida, which won the competition for the past three years, Raytheon won’t have to fly us up to D.C.,” Nicholas said. “They could probably just get us an Uber or something.”

Founded in 2005, NCCDC is the first national cybersecurity competition to test how well college students operate and manage a network infrastructure similar to those in the commercial sector. More than 230 colleges and universities participated in the regional competitions that led to the 2017 national championship, held in April in San Antonio, Texas. There, teams worked to secure a virtual, multi-site corporation with 160 fictional employees, point-of-sale systems and the inventory controls found in a typical retail company.

"The competition itself is [like] diving into the day in a life of being a cybersecurity specialist," said Jeff Jacoby, Raytheon director of cybersecurity and special missions. "They are working on real-world scenarios that they need to maintain business continuity."

The competing teams had to secure and maintain the computer network and handle daily business operations like service calls and user requests, all while the system was under attack from a red team.

“It’s not the greatest feeling when you’re getting calls from customers, employees and management that your site is down or a service is down,” said Christian Beam, UMBC team captain. “Without admitting you are being attacked and that the problem hasn’t been resolved, I would have to explain diplomatically that we're working on it and getting things back up."

Beam credits the UMBC team's collaboration, composure, preparation and professionalism as keys to their championship win.

“Some teams focused a lot of effort on fighting off the red team,” said Beam. “But you still have to run a business, and you can’t ignore your CEO and customers.”

CyberDawg team member Anh Ho, a 22-year-old graduating senior, said that although NCCDC gives you a feel for what it’s like in the real world, its competition environment is exaggerated.

“NCCDC does get you into the mindset that assumes you’ve already been compromised and that somebody already has access to your network,” Ho said. “But real attackers would never be as ‘noisy’ as the red team.”

Beam, Ho and other team members plan on careers in cybersecurity. Beam doesn’t foresee any shortage of offers because of great need for talent. Ho is talking about a possible position with Raytheon in Annapolis Junction, Maryland.

“It’s great to find a job where you’re able to wake up in the morning and get excited about going to work,” Ho said.

The enthusiasm goes both ways. “Watching these students practice their skills in real-life business scenarios gives me confidence we are growing the workforce-ready cyber talent that will meet the future demands of this important field,” said Dave Wajsgras, president of Raytheon's Intelligence, Information and Services business.

At the end of the competition, University of Maryland, Baltimore County earned the highest score and took home the coveted NCCDC Alamo Cup. University of Tulsa placed second and Brigham Young University placed third. The schools that competed at the championship included:

“The NCCDC program brings academia, government and industry together in a unique way,” said Dwayne Williams, NCCDC director. “Everyone recognizes we need to find and train more cyber professionals, and these competitions absolutely help to meet that need.”

Published: 04/17/2017

Last Updated: 08/07/2017

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