MU hosts cyber security camp to train future defenders of cyberspace

Saturday, July 30, 2011 | 7:21 p.m. CDT; updated 5:37 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 31, 2011
A focused Andrew Thompson offers coaching as his teammate, DC Grant, attempt to overcome a hurdle during Friday's race. Participants of the Cyber Challenge Camp converged at Ketchum Auditorium at the University of Missouri's engineering building to square off in the electronic race whose objective was to infiltrate a remote system via networking exploits.

COLUMBIA — Three winners walked away from the United States Cyber Challenge Regional Cyber Security Boot Camp at MU with $1,000 scholarships.

The winners, Jorge Orchilles, Mathew Sitko and Vijay Thurimella, left with more than that, though. They gained skills that will help them better defend computer networks and sensitive information from attacks that are becoming more common in today's world.


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The camp ran from Monday morning until Friday afternoon and taught people from across the country skills for breaking into computer networks, in order to defend them from those attacks.

The camp also focused on ethics. An entire panel on Tuesday was devoted to the topic of ethics in information security, and small lessons and examples in ethics were given throughout other sessions, said Alex Levinson, a teaching assistant for the camp.

Levinson said that problems in information security, such as the breach in the PlayStation Network in April, arise out of an absence of ethical teaching about information technology. This, he said, is why ethics are such an important part of what the United States Cyber Challenge teaches at its camps across the nation.

Levinson said some accuse them of enabling hackers by teaching them more skills to use, but he argues that asking someone to defend a network without teaching them how to attack a network is "... like asking a police officer to protect and serve without teaching him how to use a gun."

Information security professionals, he said, don't just build and defend systems, they also assess their own systems for vulnerabilities. To do this, they have to know how to go on the offensive, not just the defensive.

Testing a network's security is just as important as actually securing it, he said.

Karen Evans, the national director for the United States Cyber Challenge, said the staff was looking to put a camp in the Midwest since the camps had previously only been on the coasts.

Choosing Columbia was primarily due to the work of Annette Sobel, assistant to the provost for strategic opportunities, and Beth Fisher, who is Sobel's project director, Evans said. Fisher heard about the competition and informed Sobel, and they both agreed that it was an opportunity they couldn't pass up.

Evans added it was a great deal for the Cyber Challenge.

"The university isn't getting anything from having us here," Evans said. MU only charged for the use of the dorms and meals, not the computer facilities

Sobel said MU was excited to be a part of such a quickly growing field. Sobel is working on building up MU's information security program and said this camp was a great way to start drawing attention to it.

On Friday morning, the capture-the-flag style game started with a flurry of tapping on keyboards.

The objective itself was simple: break into a network the camp had set up and plant a "flag", or file, on as many of the computers as possible. Each team that planted a flag was awarded points, but a flag could only be planted on any machine once. However, on each machine was a number of "artifacts" or clues that would help the teams of three break into more machines, and the teams were awarded points for collecting them.

The 4 1/2-hour-long competition was broken by several unique interruptions. A different meme was projected on a screen in the front of the room at the top of every hour, like "Nyan Cat" and Rebecca Black's "Friday." A fire alarm went off early in the competition and forced the competitors to evacuate the building for several minutes.

At the awards ceremony, Lex Akers, associate dean for the College of Engineering, joked that it was "still under investigation" if one of the competitors had somehow caused the alarm.

Although each member of the winning team won a $1,000 scholarship, it was also an avenue to let the campers exercise their competitive personalities, which are common in information security. Several competitions have sprung up across the nation where aspiring information security professionals can test their skills against each other.

"You're trying to harness that," Evans said, talking about how the United States Cyber Challenge was trying to attract students to the information security field.

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