BU cybersecurity team advances to regional finals in Oklahoma

Photo credit: Liesje Powers

By Amanda Hargett-Granato | Reporter

A group of 10 Baylor students spent last Friday night remotely defending a computer system from hackers over 350 miles away. Students from the Baylor InfoSec organization took part in the Southwest Regional qualifying round of the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition and qualified as one of eight teams that will move on to the next round. They will compete in the regional finals in Tulsa, Okla., in mid-March.

Austin junior Brendon Kelley captains the team of cyber defenders that competed in the four-hour virtual event. The students remained at Baylor while interacting with a virtual system at the University of Tulsa. Kelley said education on keeping computer systems secure is crucial since it only takes one person to compromise a whole company’s system.

“I think [cybersecurity] is a really important field, as you can see by the current events that are happening today,” Kelley said. “You have all these businesses today that run on some aspect of technology — mostly software — and there are people who will try to take your data or whatever priority information that you have.”

The team is coached by management information systems professor Matt Pirko and computer science professor Dr. Jeff Donahoo. The cross-disciplinary team is necessary, Pirko and Donahoo said, to accurately simulate the real-world environment cybersecurity professionals deal with. Both technical and managerial expertise are necessary to deal with system security.

“What companies want is the cybersecurity skills to prevent the breach,” Donahoo said. “But breaches are going to happen despite your best efforts, so if you are breached, how do you quickly discover that you are breached? And the third part is how do you take corrective actions?”

Cybersecurity competitions can be either defensive or offensive, Donahoo said, with the students attempting to defend their system or attack another system. In Friday’s contest, the team was required to remote into the Tulsa system — which was intentionally set up with deficient security — and work to make it defensible from attack. They then had to fend off hackers from infiltrating their system, while also performing a series of tasks to show they could carry on normal operations while their “business” was under attack.

“These types of competitions, this team, and the InfoSec community here at Baylor, all of it is designed to try and give the students who are interested in these types of efforts the best experience we can in a practical sense,” Pirko said, “so that they can take it out into the world after graduation and use them in real-world situations.”

Friday’s competition marks only the second time a Baylor team has entered into the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition and its first major success.

“There are other schools that have entire centers devoted to this, and we’re hoping to get there one day, but for now we were able to do more than they could to get through this qualifying round, which is pretty cool,” Pirko said.