Students protected fictional business against cyber attacks

The University of Virginia prevailed over nine other finalist teams to win the 2019 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition and its coveted Alamo Cup. It is the UVA Cyber Defense Team’s second national title in back-to-back years — despite last year being the first time UVA participated in the competition.

The championship was held in Orlando, Fla., from April 23-25 with the national competition’s top-10 college and university teams. UVA’s team, all UVA Engineering students led for the second year by team captain Mariah Kenny, successfully protected the network of a fictional agriculture firm specializing in cryopreservation, crop research and development, and sustainable farming. The fictional company sustained multiple attacks orchestrated by ethical hackers using the same tactics and techniques as real-world bad actors.

“It’s absolutely incredible to be back-to-back winners,” Kenny said. “To win nationals in the first two years of competing shows that our team has something special.”

Competing for the team in Orlando were Calvin Krist, Daniel Chen, Mariah Kenny, Roman Bohuk, Jack McDowell and Jake Smith, all computer science undergraduates; computer science Ph.D. student Jack Verrier; and Conner Steenrod, a mechanical engineering major. Will Mayes, Caroline Linkous and Sam Spelsberg, also computer science majors, were alternates for the national competition. Yonghwi Kwon, John Knight Career Enhancement Assistant Professor of Computer Science, advised this year’s team.

2019 UVA Cyber Defense Team photo with national title trophy

The UVA Cyber Defense Team won the 2019 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition to capture its second consecutive national championship. From left are Jack Verrier, Calvin Krist, Daniel Chen, Mariah Kenny, Roman Bohuk, Conner Steenrod, Jack McDowell and Jake Smith. Will Mayes, Caroline Linkous and Sam Spelsberg (not pictured) served as alternates for the national competition.

Kenny attributed their success last year and this year to teamwork, preparation and staying calm.

“Our communication gives us a competitive edge. We are definitely a more technical team than we were last year — we learned a lot and filled a lot of knowledge gaps that we identified. But even with our increased technical ability, we still worked together as a team really well and were constantly communicating,” she said.

“We also kept our cool. If there was an issue, or someone got frustrated, we just asked another team member for help and worked together to solve the problem.”

Kenny said they appreciate the competition’s learning-based structure and its organizers, noting the team took advantage of last year’s feedback to prepare for this year.

“Because of that, we learned more than we could have on our own, and we’re really grateful for that,” Kenny said. “I’m so proud of our team and all of the hard work that we put into preparing for the competition. It definitely paid off and will make us better professionals in the industry.”

Kenny also recognized the Computer Science Department and Kwon for their support. “Professor Kwon helped coordinate logistics and gave advice on strategy, and we’re very thankful for him. Last, but not least, a huge thank you to the department for helping to fund our trips and allowing us the opportunity to compete in the first place,” she said.

The idea of the competition is to provide colleges and universities that offer cybersecurity programs with a “controlled, competitive environment to assess their students’ depth of understanding and operational competency in managing the challenges inherent in protecting a corporate network infrastructure and business information systems,” according to the organization’s website.

“The National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition’s systematic, professional approach to this competition, and the use of real-world business scenarios, help attract the talent that will fill the 3.5 million cyber job vacancies we will see by 2021, according to research published by Cybersecurity Ventures,” said John DeSimone, vice president of Cybersecurity and Special Missions at Raytheon Intelligence, Information and Services. “Congratulations to University of Virginia and all NCCDC competitors. We encourage them to continue their pursuit of cybersecurity excellence.” 

More than 235 colleges and universities competed to test their cybersecurity prowess. Regional competitions composed of multiple stages and a single-elimination round reduced the field to 10 finalists for the national championship. The National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition was the first to test cyber defense skills in a collegiate competition modeled after real-world attack scenarios. Seeing the practical applications of cyber defense skills encourages more students to pursue cybersecurity careers.

“Everyone recognizes the need to find and train more cyber professionals,” said Dwayne Williams, director of the competition, Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “The program brings academia, government and industry together in a unique way to address that need.”

In addition to UVA’s top finish, the University of Central Florida placed second and Rochester Institute of Technology placed third. The 10 schools that competed at the championship were:

  • Baldwin Wallace University, Midwest Regional Winner
  • Rochester Institute of Technology, Northeast Regional Winner
  • Stanford University, Western Regional Winner
  • University of Alaska, Anchorage, At-Large Regional Winner
  • University of Tulsa, Southwest Regional Winner
  • University of Washington, Seattle, Pacific Rim Regional Winner
  • Utah Valley University, Rocky Mountain Regional Winner
  • Dakota State University, North Central Regional Winner
  • University of Virginia, Mid-Atlantic Regional Winner
  • University of Central Florida, Southeast Regional Winner

Sponsors of the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition include government agencies, colleges and commercial companies. Raytheon will bring the winning team to Washington, D.C., to some of the nation’s top research and national cybersecurity sites.

About Raytheon
Raytheon Company, with 2018 sales of $27 billion and 67,000 employees, is a technology and innovation leader specializing in defense, civil government and cybersecurity solutions. With a history of innovation spanning 97 years, Raytheon provides state-of-the-art electronics, mission systems integration, C5I™ products and services, sensing, effects and mission support for customers in more than 80 countries. Raytheon is headquartered in Waltham, Mass.

Team caption Mariah Kenny and a teammate at work in the competition

UVA Cyber Defense Team captain Mariah Kenny and Jack McDowell at work during the 2019 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. UVA won the national title in 2018 and 2019, the only two times the University has competed in the event.