By Tony Kontzer
Nov. 16, 2005
Iowa State University will be victimized by hackers this weekend, and
school officials are just fine with that. That's because the hackers
will be applying their demonic talents to help educate a new
generation of network security professionals during the Big 12
School's 2005 Cyber Defense Competition.
The contest, one of a handful of such events across the country, will
pit 11 teams of four to six Iowa State students against each other in
a battle to see who's best at fending off a variety of network
intrusions. The idea is to simulate the conditions young networking
geeks will encounter as future IT professionals. "Hopefully, the
network teams keep the network up and running, and stay one step ahead
of the hackers, just like in the real world," says Nate Evans, a
senior computer science and German major who's student director of the
The security matchup is different from other similar events in a
number of ways. Students will focus on protecting business information
rather than the warfare intelligence that students guard during
competitions at the military academies. And whereas participants in
competitions at the University of Texas at Austin are asked to secure
an already assembled network a day earlier, Iowa State's students were
given all the hardware they need weeks in advance, and they set up
their own network with security in mind.
Additionally, the whole competition unfolds in Iowa State's Internet
Scale Event and Attack Generation Environment, a state-of-the-art
security testing facility funded by the U.S. Department of Justice to
the tune of $500,000, with another $700,000 on the way. (A team from
the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is planning to visit
Iowa State to get a glimpse of the facility and to learn more about
The competition works like this: The student teams set up their
networks to support a range of business-related tasks, such as
checking E-mail or browsing the Web, and a neutral team of students
act as users, using a dedicated workstation to perform those computing
tasks. Then, the team of hackers--about a dozen volunteers from the IT
security community, most of whom represent private companies that are
members of the FBI's local InfraGard chapter--start launching the
attacks they've been working on independently for weeks. "They're
given a connection to the network, and we tell them 'do your worst,'"
The winning team--on which each member is given a $100 gift
certificate for the school book store--is determined by a team of
judges based on the team's effectiveness in fending off the stream of
attacks over an 18-hour period starting Friday night.
The competition could soon become part of a more coordinated national
program. The Iowa State event was born from a National Science
Foundation workshop two years ago at which attendees from academia and
private industry discussed plans for a national competition that would
function like a March Madness for students interested in IT security.
That ambitious goal is still a ways off, but Iowa State is taking
steps in that direction. It plans to open the competition to students
from other schools in its region beginning with an event next spring.
Plus, the school wants to expand its reach with tentative plans to
host a competition that would pit teams of industry, government, and
academic IT pros against each other.
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