Six students from the School of Information Technology (IT) traveled to Argonne National Laboratories in Lemont to compete in the Department of Energy Cyberforce competition on December 1, 2018. The competition focuses on protecting the nation’s energy systems and integrates protecting computer systems with industrial control systems, such as those used to control oil pipelines and power plants. The competition is designed to help participants increase their understanding of the threats and vulnerabilities to cyber-physical systems, and give competitors a hands-on opportunity to defend a system in the face of professionalisms attackers.

Competing teams were given identical environments consisting of Windows and Linux servers, plus the physical industrial control systems consisting of a pump and associated control modules. The systems were compromised by design, with weak passwords, misconfiguration errors, and inadequate network defenses. Students had some time to harden the systems, then a team of professional penetration testers attacked the systems for about eight hours.

Points were awarded based on keeping the system secure, reporting intrusions that happened, and documenting both their steps to secure the systems and to provide documentation to users. The team from ISU placed highest among the six teams that competed from Illinois and 28th out of 62 total teams, nationwide. The teams were distributed at different Department of Energy national labs around the country. Glen Sagers, the faculty member mentoring the students, was very impressed with students’ ability to adapt to challenges introduced during the competition and reach well beyond the skills taught in class.

Students enjoyed the competition and were able to apply many skills taught in the classroom to a real-world scenario, as well as learn new skills such as Windows Active Directory administration, DNS configuration, and Linux server hardening.

“Although I haven’t taken as many classes as my teammates, I learned to utilize many new tools. This helped me parse log files during the competition, and the competition helped me to further my knowledge of the field,” sophomore Marc Roth-Garcia said.

“The cyber force competition helped me regain my interest in working in the public sector, as well as develop my incident response skills. Cyberforce is a well-run competition I recommend for students of all ability levels,” senior Rob Heaser said.

Students competing were:

  • Marc Roth-Garcia
  • Henry Laurx
  • Robert Heaser
  • Nathan Stukenberg
  • Mathankumar (Kumar) Rakholia
  • Josh Lakota