This spring, some of the world's wiliest hackers gathered at UNH in an attempt to bring down powerful corporate networks.
But no one on campus was worried; in fact, the hackers were welcomed. They went up against student cyber defense teams from 10 universities in the seventh annual Northeast Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, hosted by UNH's computer science department.
"Hosting proves that we are serious and invested in excelling in the area of cyber security," says Greg Hilston '15, team captain of the UNH Cyber Security Club Wildhats.
For the competition, each of the 10 teams runs a common set of systems typical to a small business: email, websites, VPN (virtual private network), remote access, and others. During the three-day event, as each team's "CEO" makes requests to these ersatz IT departments, hackers from the U.S. military, government, and top security firms try to attack the teams' systems. Prevailing in the competition amounts to foiling the attackers' attempts.
"It's a few months' IT work in a weekend," says Wildhats president Adam Holmes '14. "It's our job to go in completely blind and make sure everything is secure. But people in our 'company' need to be able to work at the same time."
And while the team's focus is technical, Hilston says the interpersonal skills of communication, organization, leadership, and teamwork are equally important. "This isn't a one-person show," he says. "In order to succeed we must all work together and contribute our own personal excellences in our own personal ways."
Despite the many hours devoted to the team, Hilston and Holmes call the work fun and a terrific way to boost their classroom studies with real-world experience. Indeed, many students leave the competition with job offers—employers eager for the opportunity to connect with bright young minds in the increasingly relevant field of cyber security support the competition in part for the opportunity to recruit there.
While the relatively young Wildhats team was not among the top-three finishers in March, they're upbeat about their performance and their future prospects. "Every year I am so impressed with how much the students learn about what it takes to secure real-world systems," says coach and event organizer Ken Graf, an instructor in the computer science department. "The competition is keen, the attackers are world class."