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The “Big Dance of Data Defense” Tips Off this Month

Paul Krier, SMU graduate and Raytheon employee, trains Alyssa Rahman, an SMU computer science sophomore, for the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Rahman, who is also a Raytheon cyber intern, is only one of three returning SMU team members who competed in the NCCDC championship last year.

It’s all about the “D” for Tom Nedorost — coach for the champion University of Central Florida Knights: Defense is what wins.

“We’ve got most of our starters returning this season and a couple of talented recruits,” Nedorost said. “There’s no substitute for experience, and then when you combine that with training, drills and a game plan, you’ll wind up with a very competitive team.”

March Madness may be right around the corner, but Nedorost’s team won’t be cutting down nets. They’ll be defending them. Because this is the Big Dance of Data Defense: the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition.

In 10 regional events that began in late February, approximately 180 teams from universities and colleges across the U.S. will become the information technology departments for mock small businesses such as gaming websites, utility companies or online retailers. They will attempt to keep their businesses running while fending off cyber attacks from a team of 30 professional and "white hat" hackers.

The 10 teams that emerge from the regional events will spar for the national championship in San Antonio, Texas, on April 24-26. Raytheon's interactive bracket follows the action all the way to nationals, and fans can even cheer for their teams online.

Nedorost hesitates to predict whether his team can capture another national championship. He sees a lot of parity across the country.

“When you get to this level, teams are so good and evenly matched that it could come down to the wire. The winner will be the team that can recover quickest from its mistakes.”

Filling the Talent Gap
Raytheon sponsored last year’s competition and has already signed on through 2016. The company, an industry leader in cybersecurity, sees the competition as an opportunity to help groom the next generation of data defenders.

“Our country does not have enough skilled people or the infrastructure to combat all the threats that are coming across the Internet today,” said David Wajsgras, the recently appointed president of Raytheon’s Intelligence, Information and Services business. “NCCDC provides hands–on experience and builds interest in careers to fill this talent gap.”

Last year, the University of Central Florida team had only just met each other. This year, many members are returning, and “many of them have become roommates and are taking classes together,” said Nedorost. “That makes for a tightknit group.”

The Knights coach said that he and his team don’t fret about collegiate competitors. “We can’t scout other colleges, and we can’t get game tape on them like football or basketball,” he said. “Realistically, our competition is the Red Team. We have to beat them.”

The Air Force Academy team practices for the upcoming Rocky Mountain Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, to be held Feb. 27-28 at Regis University in the Denver Tech Center.

Discipline and Dedication
Another contender is the Air Force Academy Falcons from Colorado Springs. The Academy’s cyber cadets have competed in NCCDC for four years, winning the Rocky Mountain Region event for four consecutive years.

“The cadets are very disciplined and dedicated,” said Dr. Martin Carlisle, head of the Department of Computer Science at the Academy. “The military trains its people well on handling stressful situations. NCCDC is definitely stressful; the championship crams six months of IT effort into a single weekend.”

Another team hoping to repeat in the regionals is Southern Methodist University from Dallas, Texas. The Mustangs won the 2014 Southwest Regional. Raytheon employees Paul Krier and Stark Riedesel have coached SMU’s cyber squad on countering hack attacks.

SMU sophomore Alyssa Rahman interned for Krier in Raytheon’s IT security office in Garland, Texas. Rahman is returning to compete again this year. She likes the challenge — the cat and mouse game between hacker and defender.

“Cyber defenders are at a huge disadvantage,” she said. “Attackers can mess up repeatedly until they either break in or get caught. Defenders, on the other hand, only have to mess up once, and it’s game over.”

After learning the ropes at Raytheon, Rahman knows well the importance of keeping hackers out of critical networks in both industry and government. “I gained a lot of insight into the Advanced and Persistent Threat that industry and government face.”

Air Force Academy coach Carlisle says that NCCDC and competitions like it are preparing the next generation virtual vanguard.

“Protecting our airspace is pretty straight forward, if a bomber flies across the ocean or comes over the North Pole, we’re going to send fighter jets to intercept before they cross our borders,” he said. “In cyberspace, there are no borders to defend.”

Published: 02/24/2015

Last Updated: 03/10/2015

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