CyberHawks Flex Digital Defenses at CyberForce Competition

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By Casey Moffitt
IIT CyberHawks

Illinois Institute of Technology students showcased their cybersecurity skills during the United States Department of Energy’s CyberForce competition on November 4.

Three teams of students from the university’s CyberHawks student organization took part in the competition that was held in St. Charles, Illinois, with 107 teams of students from across the country. CyberForce challenges students’ knowledge and abilities in five critical cybersecurity categories, and gives students a chance to apply the skills that they have learned in the classroom to a real-world environment.

“Through these events we test our knowledge on rapidly establishing network defenses, responding to cyberattacks, and solving cybersecurity challenges,” says David Arnold (Ph.D. CPE 5th Year), CyberHawks president and captain of team IIT CyberHawks. “Having a live red team testing our defenses allows us to get immediate feedback on how we’re doing.”

A total of 17 CyberHawks members composed the three teams: IIT CYberHawks, IIT Talons, and IIT Tailwind. They were tested in cybersecurity anomalies, maintaining availability of business functions, defenses, maintaining an employee website, and documenting their findings and organizational risks.

IIT CyberHawks fared best of the three teams, placing 12th overall, earning second place for usability, and finishing third in documenting findings and organizational risks.

“CyberForce competition is one of the best and toughest ones I have attended,” says Shreyas Kulkarni (M.A.S. CYBS 1st Year), IIT Tailwinds captain. “It helped me understand the gaps within me, where I need to focus, and start working. This also indirectly opens opportunities to grab an internship or a job.”

The CyberForce competition encourages participants to deploy creative defense strategies and techniques in safeguarding cyber assets. Competitors are scored on their “out-of-the-box” and innovative ideas and defenses. These defenses stem from the real-world constraints provided, and are developed to ensure that the system’s intended purpose is not deprecated.

Students say the CyberForce competition was not only an effective way to assert the skills they have learned—it also challenged them in new areas as well.

“My biggest challenge throughout the CyberForce competition was learning how to effectively identify and manage vulnerabilities within a Windows environment,” Arnold says. “We’ve worked extensively with Linux environments in our past competitions and club activities, but have not had chance to work within Windows.”

Arnold says he consulted with an alum, John Ford (CE ’23), who attended the event to help identify common tactics used by threat actors when attacking Windows along with the different methods that can be used to secure Windows devices.

Elizabeth Aquino (CS, M.A.S. CBYS 5th Year) says the competition not only gave her an opportunity to apply the theory that she has learned in the classroom, but it also provided opportunities to learn more about cybersecurity careers.

In addition to the competition, the CyberForce program included a career fair to connect students with energy companies, national laboratories, federal agencies, and more.

“Competitions allow students to meet other students from across the nation, as well as connect with professionals” she says. “We are able to ask professionals about their career, the competition, or even themselves. It shows that the competition organizers, who are working professionals, care for the growth of each student who competes.”

Cyberhawks provides students with hands-on experiences to enhance classroom learning at Illinois Tech, in addition to hosting educational seminars to teach core cybersecurity skills for Illinois Tech students enrolled in cybersecurity degree programs, as well as those who are interested in cybersecurity. The student group organizes social events, too.

The three teams consisted of the following students:

IIT CyberHawks—David Arnold (Ph.D. CPE 5th Year), Mohamed Trigui (CS, M.S. CS 2nd Year), Nicholas Quigley (ACDS 3rd Year), Benjamin de Pater (CS 2nd Year), and Joanna Findura (CPE, M.S. CPE 5th Year).

IIT Talons—Elizabeth Aquino (CS, M.S. CYBS 5th Year), Alec Donald (CS 3rd Year), Kat Stevens (ACDS 3rd Year), Sai Varun Reddy Bhemavarapu (M.A.S. CYF 1st Year), Kevin Gandhi (M.A.S. CYF 2nd Year), and Lucas Ferguson (CS, M.S. CS 2nd Year).

IIT Tailwind—Shreyas Kulkarni (M.A.S. CYBS 1st Year), Abhijeet Pawar (M.A.S. CYF 1st Year), Kushal Badodekar (M.A.S. CYF 1st Year), Manoj Viswanathan (M.A.S. CYBS 1st Year), Maitreya Waghmare (M.A.S. CYF 2nd Year), and Daniel Ayabe (CS, M.S. CYBS 5th Year).

Photo: Team IIT CyberHawks. From left to right—David Arnold, Nicholas Quigley, Benjamin de Pater, Mohamed Trigui, and Joanna Findura.