Iowa State students win first National Cyber Analyst Challenge (and $25,000!)
A security breach was detected at a small business. Teams of cyber analysts were briefed about the situation and given five hours to answer three questions: Were the cyber-attacks connected? Whose account was used to access the server? Did anyone open the malicious email?
This was the final task given to a team of Iowa State University students – and teams from eight other universities – competing in the National Cyber Analyst Challenge. And while it was only a competition, it was a scenario that businesses of all sizes face on any given day.
Identifying the threat and correctly answering the questions earned the Iowa State team a $25,000 prize for winning the challenge, which the students split amongst themselves. This was the first year for the competition, sponsored by Lockheed Martin and Temple University’s Institute for Business and Information Technology. It was developed to help students build their skills and generate interest to meet the growing demand for cyber security analysts. Members of the Iowa State team said it was a great opportunity to compete and work with professionals tackling cyber issues.
“The experience, the training and the assistance that Lockheed gave us during the competition was so valuable. It would have been more than worthwhile even if we hadn’t won the competition,” said Jason Johnson, team member and a graduate student in Information Assurance and Political Science.
To compete in the final phase of the challenge on Nov. 6, in Washington, D.C., students had to complete an initial cyber analysis in September 2015. Instead of five hours, they had three weeks to comb through massive amounts of data (approximately 75 gigabytes) and determine how an employee’s computer was compromised.
They were looking for a needle in a haystack.
It helped that the team, a combination of graduate and undergraduate students, had a diverse mix of skills and academic backgrounds.
That was by design, according to two business advisers for the team — Jim Davis, associate professor of Management Information, and John Burnley, lecturer of Information Systems.
“That multi-discipline approach gave students a clear advantage,” Davis said. “They handled it like professionals and we are very proud of them.” The students were given a real scenario and an opportunity to practice their craft. “This experience will make them standout from other prospective candidates as they begin their careers,” Burnley said. “It was a tremendous experience for the students.”
Angela McMahon, a graduate business student majoring in Information Systems, said the chemistry the team developed during the three-month challenge and the fact that they all had different areas of expertise was a huge asset.
“It worked to our advantage, because each one of us did something different that contributed to the project as a whole. Instead of everyone looking at network logs, some of us could look at memory dumps from a computer. That was helpful because time was our biggest challenge.”
Students also gained experience by presenting their findings to top corporate executives. As the team was analyzing evidence, it was also building a final presentation for the judges.
A panel of industry experts scored the teams on technical proficiency, judgement and communication. “This was an amazing experience,” McMahon said.