Argonne National Laboratory

Cyber Defense Competition draws students to Argonne

By Greg CunninghamApril 26, 2016

More than 75 aspiring cyber defenders from across Illinois and Iowa converged Saturday on the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Argonne National Laboratory to take on the challenge of Argonne's first Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition.

The competition provided a strong challenge for eight teams from seven colleges, forcing them to defend simulated power utility networks from a variety of realistic attacks by a "Red Team" made up of cyber experts from Argonne and industrial partners.

"We intentionally didn't make it easy for them," said Nate Evans, group lead for Argonne's Cyber Operations Analysis and Research (COAR) team, which developed the competition. "We wanted to make this as challenging and realistic as we possibly could."

Opening remarks for the event were provided by U.S. Representative Bill Foster (D-IL-11) and Major General Richard Hayes, adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard.

"That's the value of this type of competition, because it's hard to see how things actually work without hands-on experience. You need both the classroom and the practical experience of actually doing it."

Over eight hours of competition, the teams of cyber defenders huddled around multiple monitors, doing their best to fend off the attacks, all the while keeping an eye on the scoreboard and the small lightbulb that indicated power was still flowing through their virtual electric grid.

One of the first successful attacks elicited groans and laughs in the room as the Red Team took over the website of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) team, flashing a picture of Ronald McDonald with the title "McOwned." Other website hacks replaced the homepage with photos of cats in humorous poses.

Chris Cordi, a senior on the UIUC team, said his team found the competition very valuable, despite the website attack.

"This event was incredibly well put together, especially considering it's in its first year," Cordi said. "We've learned a lot of very valuable information today."

Over eight hours of spirited attacks, the Red Team managed to switch off the power to three of the team's grids and took over a half dozen websites. In the Red Team room, the environment was hushed as attackers schemed to develop new techniques to pressure the defenders. The Red Team was made up of cyber professionals from Argonne, students from Mississippi State University and volunteers from cyber companies such as Juniper Networks.

Evan McBroom, junior at Mississippi State, said the Red Team experience was valuable because any good cyber defender must understand the attacking mindset to be able to counter their actions.

"That's the value of this type of competition, because it's hard to see how things actually work without hands-on experience," McBroom said. "You need both the classroom and the practical experience of actually doing it."

In the end, the team from Iowa State University edged out the competition, successfully defending its grid network from multiple attacks.

Todd Combs, Argonne's interim associate laboratory director for Energy and Global Security, said the competition was a huge success, with plans already underway for an even bigger event next year.

"It was amazing to see the excitement and dedication from all of these students," Combs said. "That's what this competition was all about — inspiring that next generation of cyber defenders that will carry our work forward."

Several of the competitors will be returning to Argonne this summer, joining a team of a dozen interns working with the COAR team to gain further hands-on experience in cyber defense.

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.