One Columbia Basin College student described a recent cybersecurity competition as “organized chaos.”
The 48-hour simulation included agents claiming to be with the FBI demanding access to a computer control room, calls from irate customers with crying infants in the background, and one of the CBC team’s members going rogue and attacking his own team’s defenses.
Then there were the hackers.
“I think their quote was, ‘If you don’t start doing jumping jacks right now we’re going to deface your website,’ ” recalled Stephen Erlenbush of Pasco. He and eight other students participated in the recent contest.
Despite the obstacles, the CBC team performed well, placing first at the Pacific Rim Regional Cyber Defense competition at Highline Community College in Seattle, beating a dozen other colleges and universities. The team will head to San Antonio on April 22 to compete with nine other teams at the national competition.
The CBC team’s coach compared the regional competition to the Kobayashi Maru, the fictional training exercise in the ‘Star Trek’ universe that drives home the real possibility of a no-win situation.
The students said they’re already preparing for nationals, where the pressure to prevent an attack on assigned websites, email accounts, servers or other computer-based assets will be even greater. That’s the mentality anyone working in cybersecurity has to maintain, they said, as efforts to hack into everything from banks and hospitals to companies and governments are unending.
“It’s to see how you do under fire,” said instructor Matt Boehnke, who also is a Kennewick city councilman.
CBC launched its cybersecurity program about four years ago, offering a one-year certificate or two-year associate degree. A year later, it expanded into a four-year program ending with a bachelor of applied science degree.
The program — which was partially funded by a $118,000 donation from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory operator Battelle — was intended to meet growing demand for workers who can defend data and networks belonging to public agencies and private firms.
Students in the CBC program didn’t start competing in cyber-defense competitions until last year, when they came in dead last at the regional contest. Students chalked up the poor performance to not having access to some of the equipment and programs other colleges and universities did, but also their lack of experience.
They were lessons they took to heart.
This time around, each team member went in highly trained on specific aspects of cybersecurity, but with enough knowledge to troubleshoot anything that came up, said Keith Thornhill of Pasco, who was the team’s captain. The simulation required to serve as employees for a private company, requiring a balance of vigilance and customer service.
“You still need to do the verifications as the protocol dictates,” said Levi Staley of Kennewick. “You’re verifying name, address, date of birth. Is the person you’re changing a password for really that person?”
Boehnke compared the competition to the Kobayashi Maru, the fictional training exercise in the Star Trek universe that drives home the real possibility of a no-win situation. No matter what teams do, those wanting to hack into a network are going to succeed, he said.
What matters is how quickly you can stop them and repair the damage.
“Some people got so heated, they up and left the room,” Boehnke said of other teams, adding that he could only watch video of the simulation from an observation room and could not help his students.
One challenge that no other team overcame was when those running the simulation redirected each team’s assigned website to another website. Staley managed to figure out how they did it, requiring him to go into the website’s coding and search for where it was altered.
Some people got so heated, they up and left the room.
Matt Boehnke, CBC cybersecurity instructor
Not that the competition didn’t leave the CBC team a little rattled.
“We went to a Mexican restaurant afterward, and he could barely open a soda,” Boehnke said of Staley’s shaky hands.
The team won’t only have to be worried about trick phone calls or fake FBI agents at the national competition. The game is afoot almost from the moment students check into the hotel, with “agents” tailing them and trying everything to trip them up, even hacking into personal cellphones.
“If you throw something away, they’re going to look through that trash,” Thornhill said.
But team members said they are ready. They’ve been tackling the systems the national competition organizers have thrown at them for the past week. And a heightened sense of awareness is already well-ingrained.
“When someone walks into my house now and asks for my wifi password, I mostly just laugh,” Thornhill said.