It has all the makings of a B-movie plot: A corporate network targeted by hackers and a half dozen high-school students as the company's only defense.
Yet, teams of students from ten different Iowa high schools faced exactly that scenario during a single night in late May in the High School Cyber Defense Competition. The contest tasked the teenagers with building a network in the three weeks leading up to the competition with only their teachers, and mentoring volunteers from local technology firms, as their guides.
On Friday night, May 19, and into Saturday morning, the students defended the network against a team of Iowa State University students acting as the attackers.
"As the hackers came in, you could see (the students') reactions: They were frustrated when they saw the attackers breach their systems and excited when they stopped the attack," said John Carr, a mentor for the team fielded by Valley High School of West Des Moines and senior solutions consultant with Iowa-based technology consulting firm QCI.
The contest between high schools followed the first national Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (CCDC) that took place earlier this year at the University of Texas at San Antonio, pitting four regional college champions and an all-star team from five U.S. military academies against each other.
The two tournaments mark a turning point for cybersecurity competitions from the mostly amateur affairs of the past to exercises throwing student, government and corporate competitors into the arena against each other. The competitions give students and professionals the opportunity to get hands-on experience responding to attacks, without serious consequences.
"At the end of the day, no data has been compromised and no one is going to get fired," said Timothy Rosenberg, CEO of White Wolf Security, a start-up company that has made a business out of running such competitions. "You can make an argument that this is not only good sport, but an excellent corporate security training exercise."
The U.S. government agrees. Since 2001, the U.S. military academies for the five branches of service have run an annual Cyber Defense Exercise pitting teams from each school against a Red Team consisting of members of the National Security Agency and attack specialists from the Army and Air Force. The DHS also funded the national CCDC competition in April.
"Exercises are an important way to improve our cyber security preparedness and having competitions like these are excellent ways to practice for the real thing," Andy Purdy, acting director of the National Cyber Security Division (NCSD) at the Department of Homeland Security, said in a statement marking the completion of the Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in April.
The interest comes as companies increasingly face a variety of threats posed by online attackers. In May, antispam firm Blue Security got chased off the Internet by an irate spammer that attacked the company's Web site, service network, affiliates and clients. Several security groups warned companies that a previously unknown flaw in Microsoft Word was being actively exploited to attack specific companies. These attacks build on a particularly bad year for privacy in 2005, when more than 52 million consumer accounts were placed at risk.
While academics, security experts and government officials have previously discussed turning ad-hoc hacking contests into a more formal competition, the seed for the idea failed to take root outside of the military until a workshop held at University of Texas in San Antonio in the spring of 2004.
Called together by Lance Hoffman, a computer science professor at George Washington University, and Ronald Dodge, a Lt. Colonel and professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a group of computer-security professors and graduate students discussed the future of such exercises.
Everyone agreed that the competitions should be formalized, but one participant - Greg B. White, director of the Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security (CIAS) at the University of Texas at San Antonio - feared that the process would stall.
"The first thing that happens when you get a bunch of academics together is they want to form a committee," White said. "We - three schools in Texas - decided to jump start the process and have a regional competition."
Along with Texas A&M and UT Austin, White created a regional Texas competition pitting five schools against each other in a three-day competition in April 2005. Taking lessons from the military's CDX competitions, the annual Capture the Flag tournament at DEFCON, and a few smaller academic exercises across the country, the universities decided to create a defense-focused contest, and called it the Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition.
The main focus of the collegiate competition, as well as the high school contest, is locking down an insecure business network in the face of an attack.
"When students come in, they are given a network that is up and running, but we don't guarantee that it is secure," White said. "When a student graduates and joins the commercial sector, that is what they are going to face most likely - an insecure network."
Both the college and high-school competitions use a neutral team of attackers, known as a Red Team, to represent online criminals that might infiltrate a company's network. An automated scoring system keeps track of the reliability of any services required by the current scenario, the success in detecting and mitigating an attack, and special bonuses for meeting seemingly random business goals from the fictitious company's management.
Random events also spice up the competition, said Doug Jacobson, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering for Iowa State, who ran the High School Cyber Defense Competition.
"We threw in anomalies," Jacobson said. "In a moment's notice, the CEO says that they want seven new users. Or a cable breaks. Saturday morning, we had a fire alarm, and the pseudo fireman did a few things, and the students had to come in and figure out what was done. We had those types of events going on throughout the exercise."
The contests are not about creating the ultimate secure network - such a beast just does not exist, stressed QCI's Carr, who mentored the Valley High School team.
Each team had to deal with requirements that gave an advantage to the attackers, such as run an old version of Red Hat Linux and have a Mac Mini as part of their network in addition to the seven other computers required by the rules. The Valley High School team, which won the Iowa high-school competition, used Windows 2003 running ActiveDirectory, FreeBSD, Windows XP, ALinux, and Mac OS X.
"Coming from larger environment, we (the mentors) know there is no such thing as a 100 percent Windows or Linux environment," Carr said.
In the end, the contests are about dealing with the messy real world, said White Wolf Security's Rosenberg.
"Is it stacked in the hackers favor? Of course it is," Rosenberg said. "We want the students to take a beating. Far beyond teaching students how to lock things down, we teach them how to get through an attack."
The commercial sector has already started looking at the events as a good training exercise. Corporate security professionals are already a staple at the annual Capture the Flag event at the DEF CON hacking conference, which brings together eight teams to find vulnerabilities, attack each others networks and defend against their opponents' attacks.
The SANS Institute completed a trial run of a competition that will take place during the training group's conferences, said Rosenberg.
Both the high-school and college competitions expect to expand in 2007, given the overwhelming interest in the programs. Iowa State's Jacobson expects the number of Iowa high schools that enter the competition next year to double, while UT San Antonio's White hopes to hold 8 to 10 regional competitions in 2007. By 2008, he expects the CCDC to have a governing body in place to create standards for the regional competitions and to manage the national tournament.
In the end, the competition is about training the next generation of network administrators and security engineers, UT San Antonio's White said. He hoped that companies would look at the contests as a fertile place to fill out their ranks.
"It will also be a great recruiting tool," White said. "We have some of the brightest security geeks on the planet at these events."
This article originaly appeared at SecurityFocus
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