NKU cyber defense team tops regional competition, heads to nationals

For immediate release…
Thursday – April 3, 2014

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. - Northern Kentucky University students won the 2014 Midwest Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition held in Chicago over the weekend. The NKU team, comprised of students from the College of Informatics, beat state champions from the nine Midwestern state competitions to earn a spot in the national contest to be held in San Antonio later this month.

The competition is a grueling multi-day experience that tests each team’s skills in defending a corporate-style computer network under sustained attack. The competition uses real network hardware, not simulations. Among the teams NKU defeated was the team from Rose Hulman Institute of Technology, the Midwest champions from a year ago who had gone on to earn third place in the 2013 national competition.

The NKU team entered the Midwest competition as the one wildcard team after being narrowly defeated by the University of Louisville in the Kentucky competition. The Midwest region had more teams than any other region in the country, with teams from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

Scoring for the competition has three parts: how well a team defends the network and fixes system vulnerabilities, how well a team keeps critical business services running while under attack, and how many assigned business tasks are completed. Although technical skills are important, skills in project are team management are also crucial for success.

Captain Lee Epling and co-captain Ashley Huffman led a strong team, with members Brandon Hinkel, Joshua Howard, Jack Lannon, Paul Sparks, Nick Wade, Brandon Warner, Jeffery Cundiff, and Michael Parton. The team had been preparing since September 2013, spending long Friday nights in NKU’s Griffin Hall, the high-tech home of the College of Informatics, doing everything from communication sessions to hands-on training and full-blown simulations.

“This competition was by far the most difficult one we've ever faced,” Epling said. “The environment we were given was riddled with exploits. The Red Team (the hackers) gave us special attention, and business tasks came fast and hard. In spite of these challenges, we worked together better than we ever have before, laughing and dealing with any downtime like professionals.”

Huffman, the lone female member of this year’s team, was excited about the results. “When we won we were overjoyed,” she said. “This is the first time our team has ever placed first in the Midwest region. All in all it was really everyone coming together to make a cohesive unit and working really hard. Now we are on to the nationals and are training hard to hopefully bring home a national win for NKU.”

Team alumni Kevin Childers and Ty Braunwart worked with team advisor Dr. Yi Hu of the NKU computer science department to set up virtual machine servers and networks for training sessions. The training culminated in intensive full-day simulation sessions before the competition.

The team’s trip to the Chicago competition was sponsored from Cisco Systems Inc., Cincinnati Bell Technology Solutions (CBTS), and the NKU Center for Applied Informatics. The team will fly to the national competition in Texas with expenses covered by the Center for Systems Security and Information Assurance, which is supported by the National Science Foundation.

Computer security is one of the teaching and research strengths of the NKU College of Informatics. In 2012 the computer security curriculum at NKU was certified as meeting all the standards to become a National Center of Academic Excellence (CAE) in Information Assurance Education, as determined by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. This spring NKU is completing its application to earn full designation as a CAE in Information Assurance/Cyber Defense under the 2014 guidelines.

Students in the NKU computer science department have participated in seven national and international defensive and offensive computer security competitions over the past year. These included the Cyber Wars competitions in May and November 2013, the 2013 Cyber Challenge, and various internet “Capture the Flag” cyber offense competitions. In four of the past five years, they have finished in third place or better in the regional Cyber Defense competitions.

The explosion of national and international student competitions in the field of cybersecurity reflects the intense need in government and business to develop talent in this area. According to a review of recent industry reports in Network World magazine, the demand for cybersecurity professionals has grown 3.5 times faster than the demand for other IT jobs over the past five years. Enrollment in the NKU College of Informatics has doubled in the past eight years to more than 2,200 students, in part reflecting the demand for professionals in fields like these.

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