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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

Lewis University wins the Department of Energy Cyber Defense Competition

Over the weekend, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) hosted the third annual Cyber Defense Competition (CDC) at Argonne, Pacific Northwest and Oak Ridge National Laboratories.

Devon Streit, Deputy Assistant Secretary for DOE’s Infrastructure Security and Energy Restoration (ISER) announced that Lewis University bested 24 other university teams that sought to defend their cyber networks from pseudo attacks launched by experts. 

The CDC is sponsored by DOE’s ISER and brings students in computer science and engineering together in an event that sees the students build a complex network infrastructure similar to one used by any organization, business or service. Student teams defend their networks against cyberattacks launched by industry professionals referred to as the red team.” Each student team consisted of up to six students, ranging from freshmen to Ph.D. candidates.

While Lewis University won overall, the University of Central Florida team (pictured) earned the local first-place award at Argonne. Oak Ridge and Pacific Northwest National Laboratories also hosted several university teams. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

You are this nation’s next generation of innovators, defenders and cyber warriors,” said Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry as he kicked off the contest in a video message to the crowd. There is perhaps nothing more essential to America’s national and economic security than its energy supply. The Department of Energy plays a vital role in protecting that supply, and as Secretary, it is my number one priority.”

The all-day contest followed comments from Perry; Paul Kearns, Argonne’s director; Jennifer Silk, Senior Advisor for Cybersecurity in the Office of the Secretary of Energy; Congressman Bill Foster (D-IL); and Sean Plankey, cyber intelligence adviser at BP.

Now in its third year, the DOE CDC event matched mission science with education in an area that is a particular strength for national laboratories.

For more than 70 years, DOE laboratories have been finding solutions to big challenges in the way we generate, distribute, consume and store energy,” said Kearns. That experience, along with our breadth of expertise in cyber and information sciences, positions us well to protect the nation’s energy infrastructure.”

Excitement grew as the 25 teams first huddled around their workstations and were streamed via video conference among the three host sites at Argonne, Oak Ridge and Pacific Northwest National Laboratories. All 25 teams were poised to best protect their networks from attacks from red teams” of faux hackers, one of which, at Argonne, was led by Matt Kwiatkowski, Argonne’s cybersecurity operations manager.

People can take internet security for granted without really knowing how the transfer of information works,” said Kwiatkowski. But young people have a unique perspective. They are thinking more about how cyber defense really works, it’s something that interests them.”

As the contest began, Iowa State University’s enthusiasm was clear. The team won first place two years ago before being dethroned last year. This year, they came with a vengeance to reclaim their title, but admitted that the competition was fierce. 

We are excited to redeem ourselves after last year,” said Daniel Limanowski, a senior in computer engineering. This year is especially exciting because there are a lot of different teams and the competition is neck-and-neck.” As he talked, he motioned to the leaderboard, where their team’s standing occasionally shifted based on minute-by-minute score updates.

Iowa State University took Argonne’s second-place award in the DOE Cyber Defense Competition on April 7. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Also part of the Iowa State team, Ben Holland, a Ph.D. candidate in secure and reliable computer programming, recognized that the need for students to address future cybersecurity issues is monumental.

The red team can only do so much in one day, so as long as we secure and configure everything correctly, we should be successful,” said Holland. Cybersecurity problems come from either someone attacking an assumption you made when designing the program, or from a failure to implement your design correctly.”

Even though the students were on top of their game, many of the red team attacks hit their target. After a tense morning, the team from the University of Kansas learned how to work together and stay calm during stressful times.

At this point, it’s really a lot of crisis mitigation and last minute changes due to small mistakes,” said Ellis Springe, a junior in computer engineering. We are trying to stay composed and keep our team chemistry going so that it’s still a productive work environment.”

One of the big problems in cybersecurity right now is that it is very reactionary in nature,” said Nate Evans, group lead for Argonne’s Cyber Operations Analysis and Research team, which organized the competition. The approach needs to be more proactive. We encourage the students to be innovative in their setups and design, we encourage them to come with a new approach. We want to see new creative ideas in order to leap forward with cybersecurity. “

When asked what the team members wanted to do after graduation, all of them wanted to go into some aspect of cybersecurity, whether pursuing an advanced degree in the field, or working in cyber research at one of the national labs. It’s evident that the industry is waiting for them.

The private sector, including electricity, oil and natural gas companies has provided the competition tremendous support,” said Meridith Bruozas, Manager of Educational Programs and Outreach at Argonne.  This event has been designed so that it helps students from colleges and universities rise to the occasion in a way that prepares them for their future careers. It’s unique in that it is so dynamic and replicates so closely authentic, real-world experiences.”

Unfilled cybersecurity careers will reach over 1.5 million by 2019. With the ever-increasing amount of technology placed on the internet, security is a high priority. Through the cyber defense competitions, DOE has worked to increase hands-on cyber education to college students and professionals, and to increase awareness into the critical infrastructure.

AnneMarie Horowitz, DOE Director of STEM Rising sees opportunity in this challenge.

Mixing hands-on interactive cybersecurity learning, introductions to experts from industry, the national laboratories and National Guard, knowledge of critical infrastructure challenges in the United States and a drive to compete is what makes the Cyber Defense Competition so successful in building our future workforce,” said Horowitz. STEM-ready students are more important than ever to the future of our national security and innovation in this country. The Cyber Defense Competition is one of many pathways the Department of Energy is preparing our country’s top talent of tomorrow.”

Ellis Springe is ready to accept the challenge that Secretary Perry and the contest’s organizers posed. Cybersecurity is never going to go away. That’s why it’s so exciting and dynamic. There’s always something to learn.”

Winners of DOE’s Cyber Defense Competition include:
Overall nationwide winner:
• Lewis University

From Argonne National Laboratory:
1st Place - University of Central Florida
2nd Place - Iowa State University

From Pacific Northwest National Laboratory:
1st Place - Oregon State University
2nd Place - University of Idaho

From Oak Ridge National Laboratory:
1st Place - University of Memphis
2nd Place - University of South Alabama

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit http://​sci​ence​.ener​gy​.gov/.

Interdisciplinary teams at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory address many of America’s most pressing issues in energy, the environment and national security through advances in basic and applied science. Founded in 1965, PNNL employs 4,400 staff and has an annual budget of nearly $1 billion. It is managed and operated by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. As the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information on PNNL, visit the PNNL News Center, or follow PNNL on Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit the Office of Science website.