Student members in the Information Security Club at the School of Information Studies (iSchool) and the Orange Hackers Association at the College of Engineering and Computer Science are headed to the final phase of the 2018 National Cyber Analyst Challenge in Philadelphia this week to put their cybersecurity skills and knowledge to the test.

The group qualified for the final phase of the competition at the end of February, and has spent the last several weeks in ‘workshop mode,’ preparing and learning how to remedy and mitigate cybersecurity threats.

“This was a three-phase competition,” explained Bahram Attaie, an adjunct professor at the iSchool and one of the Information Security Club’s faculty advisors. “The first phase was a case analysis, then the team spent time learning and preparing in the workshops, and now they will travel to Temple University for the final phase where they’ll put everything they’ve learned over the last semester to work trying to solve the challenge.”

“Our case scenario felt very real,” said Priyank Thavai, a master’s student in the College of Engineering and Computer Science’s Cybersecurity program. “It simulated a company that had its data compromised, so it required us to perform a digital forensics analysis to find out what happened, and how the hackers accomplished their break-in.” 

The case study allowed club members to employ knowledge from their course work, and use industry-standard tools and best practices.

“One course, Digital Forensics at the iSchool, proved to be a big advantage for us,” explained Anil Agrawal, graduate student in the iSchool’s Information Management program.  “It taught us how to look up the information in whitepapers, how to evaluate and use the tools, and how to write a report.”

The final phase takes place over two days, and teams are not allowed to access the Internet during that part of the competition.

“There’s no Internet access, no searching, you have to know the material, and anticipate what you might need to solve the problems and challenges you’ll encounter,” said Attaie. “Computing power is going to be important. We’re bringing our own computers, and the faster the computer, the quicker we can crunch through data, generate reports, and figure out the challenge.”

“I’m looking forward to the challenge because the organizers are going to try to mimic something that a state-sponsored hacker might do,” said Thavai. “So we’ll get to experience all of those things that cybersecurity professionals do out in the real world.”

“This competition also forces you to think like a hacker,” added Agrawal. “You have to think about how they operate and how they move. With something like an advanced persistent threat or a state-sponsored hacker, they’re going to have a lot of resources, be able hide their tracks, and be harder to detect.”

With real-world simulations and the opportunity to counter threats that are close to what they’d encounter working in a cybersecurity career, competitions and the preparation and training that they require are good stepping stones to a future job in the field.

“Participating in a national or regional cybersecurity competition like this is a great benefit to the students and a great way to measure the strength of a cybersecurity program,” said College of Engineering and Computer Science Professor Wenliang (Kevin) Du, a co-advisor for the team. “Many companies prefer to hire students with experience in these competitions, and our students are highly sought after in the industry because of their skills.”

“Employers want you to have this kind of experience,” echoed Attaie. “And not only that, recruiters are often at these competitions, and they are eager to see what our students are doing.”

“Being successful in these competitions helps to prove that I’ll have the knowledge to work in this industry,” added Thavai.

 This is the second time this academic year that a Syracuse University student team has succeeded at a national competition in cybersecurity. In October, the Orange Hacker’s Association at the College of Engineering and Computer Science took second place in the CyberSeed Security Competition in Connecticut.

The Syracuse team won $10,000 in February’s first phase of the National Cyber Analyst Challenge. The prize money helped to fund the team’s travel and participation at the finals. The winning team at the finals will be selected by a panel of industry experts and will receive a $20,000 grand prize.

In addition to Syracuse, the other colleges and universities advancing to the final phase include: Brigham Young University, Carnegie Mellon University, Howard University, Iowa State University, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Alabama at Huntsville, the University of Maryland – University College, the University of New Haven, and Villanova University.