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Cyber Defense: Combating Online Intruders

By: Christine Borkowski
Posted: March 23, 2011

PHOTO: Benjamin VanDenburgOn March 12, 2011, the James Madison University Cyber Defense Team (consisting of: Corey Brennan [captain], Chad Eskridge, Michael Harpe, Evan Johnson, Michael Maurer, Ryan Reid, Fred Spreen, and Benjamin VanDenburg) took a close second place in the 6th annual Mid-Atlantic Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. In January, the team won their virtual qualifying round to advance to the regional competition. Out of the 22 teams that competed, the JMU Cyber Defense Club was the only Virginia school to advance to the Regional finals round. Other schools in the region hailed from Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Washington D.C. JMU has made it to the Regional finals four of the five times that they have entered the competition.

To qualify for a CDCC Regional round, each team has to solve the type of problems that real IT teams deal with on a daily basis. A professional "red team" attacks the teams' networks and systems, and the competitors do their best to block the unwanted actions and to secure their systems. "We actually developed our own tool to fight off the red teams," said team captain, Corey Brennan before the Regional competition. "That, to us, is a big deal. We're the most experienced team in the field. We want to use it to our advantage."

For the JMU Cyber Defense Club practice makes perfect. During the fall semester, the club had about 30 students in preparation for the events. Since then the team has been solidified with eight students to focus on the competition. In order to prepare, the club divided into two teams which practiced attack and defense techniques on each other. "We practice like a football team in that respect," said Brennan.

After qualifying, the team moved on to Regional finals, held face-to-face at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD. In addition to the competition, JMU's Cyber Defense Team had the opportunity to network with employers during an after-competition job fair. "Cyber defense is a great area for the students to be in" said JMU Cyber Defense Club advisor and Information Security Program Director, Hossain Heydari, Ph.D. "There is a real shortage of trained cyber defenders, and it is a fascinating field to work in."

CyberWatch, an Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Center, holds this competition annually for several reasons. The ATE Center as a whole works as a consortium of higher education institutions, government agencies, and businesses. Their common purpose is to improve and develop the quality and quantity of America's information assurance (IA) workforce. Senior team member Chad Eskridge said that the vice president of global security company Northrop Grummen had approached him during the job fair. "They were impressed with me and others on the team." Eskridge said. "I would love to get a job with them!"

"JMU's security programs have a great reputation in both government and industry," said Heydari. "We are one of the original seven Centers of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education approved by the U.S. National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security." Heydari has been with JMU since 1997, before information security was considered vital to any industry. "Since then we have developed a lot of expertise in the field," Heydari said.

When asked how he felt at the beginning of the competition, team member Evan Jason said, "I wasn't nervous. Everyone [on the team] was excited and ready to start upon walking in." The team was ahead for most of the competition. Professor Heydari gave credit to the team members and to Professor Brett Tjaden who helped prepare them for the competition.

Professors Heydari and Tjaden have served as faculty advisors for the JMU Cyber Defense Club for the past five years. "I think the competition is an excellent opportunity for our students," said Tjaden. "[The competition] acts as a great teaching tool for taking knowledge from classes and applying it to real world situations. It is a valuable opportunity, and we are glad to provide this opportunity for our students." In addition, Tjaden said, "I am extremely proud of the team. They received nothing but glowing compliments from others after the competition."

Eskridge said, "The competition does take a lot of work, and if you're into [computer science], then it makes it fun. The competition opened my eyes about the importance of this field in the real world, not just in the government. Even school systems need defense. It is a lot easier to hack a system than to protect it!" Team Captain Corey Brennan added, "This is the field you want to be in if you're in computer science. You don't need to be a CS major to be in the club, so definitely come to our meetings to see what we do."