College Cyber Champs Tour D.C.

University of Central Florida team celebrates repeat national title

2015 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition winners

Dave Wajsgras, president of Raytheon's Intelligence, Information and Services business, joins Coach Tom Nedorost and the 2015 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition winners from the University of Central Florida.

Day One: Sizing Up The Cyber Threat

When a team nabs a national championship two years in a row, everyone wants to know the secret to its success.

So when the University of Central Florida Knights captured the Raytheon-sponsored National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition crown for a second straight year, the nation's top cybersecurity leaders wanted to learn more about the team's winning ways during a visit to the White House on July 28.

The competition requires students to keep a mock business running while fending off constant cyber attacks. More than 180 schools competed this year through a series of qualifying rounds, state competitions, regionals and finally, the national championship. With back-to-back titles under their belts, the University of Central Florida team spent hours at the White House's Old Executive Building describing how they pulled off the feat.

"They did it the old-fashioned way — good, hard work," said Tim Polk, assistant director of cybersecurity for the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Also for the second year in a row, Raytheon, the competition's key partner, rewarded the students with a trip to the nation's capital. The tour shows the students new cyber technologies, makes them familiar with the efforts of the government and industry to combat Internet threats and provides them a better understanding of career opportunities.

The tour included a stop at Raytheon's campus in Dulles, Virginia, where Raytheon Intelligence, Information and Services president Dave Wajsgras and others congratulated them for repeating as champions. He told the students the cyber threat to national security, economic prosperity and individual liberties is growing exponentially.

To illustrate the expanding threat, Wajsgras shared that in 2007, the word "cyber" was never mentioned in the national threat assessment released by the Director of National Intelligence. In the last two reports, both the 2014 and 2015 assessments, it's listed as the No. 1 threat to America – greater than the Islamic State, the North Korean nuclear program or any other.

Wajsgras told the students they are entering a field critical to the United States. He chatted with them about his career path, offered advice for theirs and urged them to learn as much as possible over the next few days.

The UCF students also heard from Brig. Gen. (retired) Greg Touhill, deputy assistant secretary for the Department of Homeland Security Office of Cybersecurity and Communications. He discussed in greater depth the cyber threats facing the U.S. and how the team could help defend it in both the public and private sectors.
The general earned "geek" cred with the students after referencing a scene in "Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan" in which Captain Kirk uses a five-digit password to regain control of the commandeered starship the U.S.S. Reliant.

Next, Dr. Patrick Carrick, the newly named Department of Homeland Security director of advanced research projects, talked to the Central Florida Knights about the science of cyber.

The team then toured Raytheon's Cyber Operations and Development Evaluation (CODE) Center, where experts test both hardware and software, and networks and systems, measuring their resiliency by exposing them to realistic cyber threats. The center is a showroom for Raytheon's cybersecurity products and a mock battleground for full-on hacking simulations.

The students ended the morning by pairing in teams of two to test their cyber skills in a video game contest. But they weren't just playing this game – the challenge was to hack its code. Cheating was not only allowed, but encouraged. The winning duo of Alex Davis and Kevin Colley each walked away with a pair of mDrawBot drawing robot kit. Helping all the players were Raytheon cyber engineers, including members of the company's Deep Red team, recently selected as one of seven finalists in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Cyber Grand Challenge. That contest requires teams to create a computer program that finds security flaws in software and fixes them almost instantly.

The team had a pizza lunch and then attended an ice cream social with Raytheon employees before heading to downtown D.C.

Raytheon cyber engineers

Raytheon cyber engineers Eric Lee and John May pass along pointers during a video game artificial intelligence contest to University of Central Florida students Conner Brooks (seated left) and Austin Brogle.

The students spent the afternoon speaking with White House cybersecurity leaders including an in-depth conversation with Michael Daniel, President Obama's special assistant and cybersecurity coordinator.

Subjects included diversity in the cybersecurity field, how cybersecurity is often forgotten in product development, how business executives should treat information assurance just as they do other risks, and the Internet of Things, including a debate on whether so many types of devices should be connected. Daniel told the team he still uses an old-fashioned coffee pot – one without an IP address – and that it works just fine.

When Daniel was asked why people still practice unsafe and risky information security behaviors, such as not updating software and installing security patches, he said, "Convenience trumps security."

The president's special assistant closed their talk by praising the students for their accomplishments and assuring them plenty of cybersecurity work awaits them. After dinner, the students capped the evening with a VIP tour of the Capitol with U.S. Rep. John Mica (R-Florida) serving as guide. Mica's district includes the university.

Mica led the students on an exclusive two-hour tour to areas of the Capitol that the public rarely get to glimpse, such as the actual House and Senate floors. The students even got a chance to sit in House Chamber seats. Mica concluded the tour on the Capitol steps, where he announced that Raytheon will donate $25,000 to the University of Central Florida’s cybersecurity scholarship fund.

Alex Davis and Andres Giron-Arias

Alex Davis and Andres Giron-Arias, UCF students, take selfies during a White House West Wing tour in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, July 29

Day Two: Code-cracking and the West Wing

There it was: Enigma, the world’s most famous cipher machine. The Nazis used it to encode tactical messages. The Allies cracked its code and used the intel to win the war.

Now it’s on display at the National Cryptologic Museum at Fort Meade, Maryland. Usually, visitors see it and stand in awe of the history. But put a bunch of college-aged cybersecurity champions in the room and the reaction is a little different.

The question wasn’t whether they could beat the machine. The question was how quickly they could do it.

Those University of Central Florida students are taking a Raytheon-sponsored tour of Washington, D.C., this week in celebration of their second straight championship at the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Their second day included stops at the museum, the National Security Agency and the White House.

“These students look at the world through a different lens,”  said Hahna Latonick, a Raytheon cyber engineer who accompanied the group. “They never assume anything is secure or uncrackable. Instead, they assume everything is exploitable, and the only question they’re wondering is, when will it be exploited?”

“When they saw Enigma, it wasn’t, ‘Wow, a piece of history,’ but ‘Wow, how could I break into this?’” she said.  “And then flip that, and now how can I secure it?”

At the NSA, the team’s stops included the Information Assurance Directorate, which is responsible for the agency’s defensive mission, and the NSA/Central Security Service Threat Operations Center.

"One thing I discovered after our tour of the NSA is that it's nothing like you see in the movies or hear about in the news," said team co-captain Jason Cooper, 23. "There are a lot of things that they are doing that we never hear about that protect our country's critical infrastructure. It was a real eye-opener; they do much more than code breaking and data collection."

The last stop of the day: The White House’s West Wing, with glimpses and history lessons at the Navy Mess, Situation Room, West Colonnade, Rose Garden and South Lawn, Cabinet Room, Oval Office, Roosevelt Room and the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.

One student quipped that he expected to see Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright – the president and first lady in the Netflix series “House of Cards" – to round the corner at any moment.

The tour may have even set one of the team members on a career path.

"Here I am, standing a block from the White House with the Washington Monument behind me, and I can't deny that it's made a great impact on me," said Shane Welch, 22. "Seeing these patriotic symbols is very inspiring, and reminds one of a greater purpose. It's probably not the 'millennial' thing to say, but that's what I believe."

He was already considering work in the public sector, but his D.C. trip, and his conversation with Latonick – a former Defense Department cyber specialist – reinforced his desire to work for the federal government.

"Some people are motivated by monetary rewards, some strive for accolades and achievements, while others seek solutions to difficult problems, which are all worthy ambitions," Welch said. "I'm driven by something else — social responsibility. I believe in the mission, and embrace the same values and traits of those in government service. Ultimately, I want to give back to my country because it has given so much to me."

 Cyber Crime Center

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent shows UCF students one of the many computer forensics labs in the Cyber Crime Center. The state-of-the-art center opened in June to combat cybercrime.

Day Three: Data on Dead Devices, Stunt Driving with the Secret Service

The hard drive had been shot twice and submerged in water. You’d think its data would be irretrievable.

You’d think.

But not at DC3, the Defense Cyber Crime Center, operated by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. The center, a hub of digital and multimedia forensic work, was a high point for a team of University of Central Florida students on a three-day tour of Washington, D.C., to celebrate their second straight championship at the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. 

"The center looked like something out of the movies, it was so high-tech. It was like NCIS but the real thing," said Andres Giron-Arias, a 25-year-old senior from Miami. "I've got a real interest in an Android forensics, maybe even in the law enforcement arena, and so the DC3's forensics lab was the high point of our week. They had a hard drive that somebody shot two bullets into and then it was dunked under water, and they still were able to extract data off it. I can't even imagine the technology needed to do that but it seems like something out of science fiction." 

Other Day Three stops included the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s new Cyber Crimes Center in Fairfax, Virginia. 

The UCF cyber champs were surprised to learn how large an agency ICE truly is, with its caseload including intrusion detection, online theft of intellectual property and export-controlled data, document fraud, child pornography and illicit underground marketplaces. 

One agent told the cyber team more crimes have been committed using a computer keyboard and mouse than have ever been carried out using a gun. 

The final stop of the day, and of the team’s three-day DC visit, was the James J. Rowley Training Center – the U.S. Secret Service's 500-acre "boot camp." 

The University of Central Florida's cyber team discovered that Secret Service agents don't just "take a bullet," although they will in a heartbeat. In addition to protecting the president, the vice president, their families, other dignitaries and the White House, the Secret Service also protects the integrity of United States currency and investigates crimes against the U.S. national financial system committed by criminals around the world and in cyberspace. 

Instructors discussed the rigorous training every agent receives and visited the weapons "library," a collection of every weapon in an agent's arsenal – and of every imaginable weapon they might face in the field. Each of those weapons, by the way, is in working order. 

The cyber squad also visited a garage of every vehicle used by the Secret Service – everything from bicycles and all-terrain vehicles to stretch limos and SUVs. Some of those vehicles had heavier fortification than tanks. 

Then, the fun part: A few students volunteered to ride along with agents as they demonstrated evasive driving maneuvers in souped-up Dodge Chargers on a closed track. 

"I asked if I could take some 'selfies' when I got in the car, and the agent told me, 'You might want to hold on," and then he floored it," Giron- Arias said. "It was good advice because I was bouncing around everywhere. UCF is in Orlando and I've been to all the theme parks. This, however, was the ride of my life – I don't think I've ever pulled more Gs before today." 

So does Giron-Arias still consider the DC3 Forensics Lab his favorite tour stop? 

"Professionally, yes," he said. "But personally, this was the most exciting and intense." 

As for the selfie, he’s not sure whether he got the shot off. 

"The phone flew out of my hand and went under the seat, and there was no way of getting it back until we came to a stop." 

The good news is, if he did snap a pic of his wild ride, the folks at DC3 can help him retrieve it.

Published On: 07/29/2015
Last Updated: 12/11/2017