Since the recent NSA leaks, cyber defense has been in the headlines of U.S. news. Iowa State held the National Cyber Defense Competition on Feb. 8 in the Transformative Learning Area of Coover Hall. The competition is designed to mimic real-world situations in which students would have to act quickly to defend their network from various intrusions. 

Doug Jacobson, professor of computer engineering, started the Computer Security Club in 2003 because he has always had an interest in computer science and hacking, so it made sense to put these together and start a club for students who share the same interests.  

“I look at things and think, 'How can I break them?' Many of the students think this way as well,” said Jacobson.

“This competition is important because it gives our students an opportunity to do some things that they can’t learn in the classroom. The goal is getting more students interested and excited to learn,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson funded the competition financially and made food for the students throughout the day, but it was the students who set up the majority of the competition. Jacobson said it’s a great leadership opportunity for the students who participate.

"The Computer Security Club began as a club for students to get together and have fun, but over the years it has evolved into more of a learning experience. The competitions put on at ISU are a way to recruit students, high school students in particular, to become involved in computer security," said Jacobson.

Each team is given a network to set up and secure with certain requirements. Along with keeping up with this, the teams have to deal with intrusions by the Red Team. Volunteers come from across the country just to participate in this event and join the Red Team.

The Red Team's goal is to collect "flags" from the teams said Carlos Velasquez, junior in computer engineering. These flags may be things such as getting access to passwords that allow for administrative access. The job of the student teams is to get these flags back, in turn gaining points.

Jacobson said the program is set up so that there are problems in the system. The students have to work to figure out how to deal with them. The teams are scored on several factors: network security, quality of documentation, usability of their systems and participation in other events throughout the day. 

Students huddled over their laptops from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Feb. 8 to defend their teams’ networks. The teams prepared for the competition by learning about how servers worked and various techniques to break into system networks. As the day went on, numerous anomalies were randomly given to the teams, which they worked to repair. 

“I’ve been to one cyber defense competition before, but this one is at a national level, so it’s harder,” said Velasquez.

Unlike some other cyber defense competitions, this competition is open to more than just Iowa State students, and this year the other teams came very prepared, Jacobson said.

The National Cyber Defense competition is one of four cyber defense competitions put on by the ISU Information Assurance Center in associated with the Internet-Scale Event and Attack Generation Environment and Information Assurance Student Group. Jacobson said he is excited that next month the NSA is sponsoring a workshop at Iowa State in which faculty from across the country come in and teach students more about inquiry based learning.

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