A team of Syracuse University students was awarded first place and $20,000 in the National Cyber Analyst Challenge (NCAC) at Temple University in Philadelphia earlier this month.

The team was comprised of  information management graduate students Anil Agrawal, Michael DiFalco, and Dheeraj Menon from the School of Information Studies (iSchool), and  cybersecurity graduate students Priyank Thavai and Sirisha Prakash from the College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS). The students are also members of the iSchool’s Information Security Club or ECS’s Orange Hackers Association. They cite the cross-disciplinary nature of their team as a key advantage in their victory.

“Our academic programs prepared us well for this challenge,” said Prakash. “Many of the attacks we uncovered in the competition were ones that we were familiar with from our coursework.”

At NCAC, students are given six hours and a large set of network traffic data to identify the origins of a cyberattack and its potential damage, and then make a seven-minute presentation of their findings and recommendations to a panel of C-suite-level judges from industry. This was the final phase of the challenge. The team had previously advanced through an initial phase in which they won $10,000.

“You have to think like an attacker,” explained Thavai. “If you know what you are looking for the data can reveal suspicious activity. It’s our job to link it and weed out red herrings.”

The NCAC win is another notch in Syracuse University’s belt for cybersecurity. Syracuse was named the top school for cybersecurity in the country by Military Times in 2017 and 2018. Faculty from institutions all over the world rely on security education labs designed by Syracuse professor and team co-advisor Wenliang (Kevin) Du to expand their cybersecurity knowledge and teach their students. ECS offers a masters in cybersecurity, online and on campus, and a cybersecurity semester for undergraduates. The iSchool offers a certificate of advanced study in information security management.

“I am proud of our group for this tremendous accomplishment,” said the team’s co-advisor, Bahram Attaie. “The team leveraged their individual strengths with different cybersecurity toolsets, applied that knowledge to the large data set they were given, and came together to present their work in front of the judges, earning the top slot at the competition.”

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 Hackers Association took second place in the CyberSeed Security Competition in Connecticut. The student organization promotes affinity for cybersecurity, continuous learning, and participation in skill-based competitions.

Ultimately, the students’ education and participation in competitions like NCAC prepare them for success in the cybersecurity industry—an industry that is consistently seeking skilled employees.

“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 Du. “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.”