HackFest cracks student interest in cybersecurity through competition

By Matthew Muir | Staff Writer, Video by Grace Smith | Broadcast Reporter

Baylor’s HackFest event challenged students to learn about and become better aware of handling cybersecurity threats.

October is Cybersecurity Awareness Month, and Tuesday night’s HackFest was part of Baylor Cyber Day, a two-day series of events to raise awareness about cybersecurity. Cyber Day continues with a public forum of cybersecurity experts at 1:30 p.m. today in Foster 250.

The main event, a “King of the Mountain” competition, pit teams of students against each other in an effort to hack into and plant their virtual flag in a server. Professor of computer science Dr. Jeff Donahoo served as the director of Hackfest. Donahoo said the team competition gave participating students experience in the field of hacking, which can be an asset to employers.

“We are trying to create a real-world situation where there are servers that are out there, maybe running your company, and there are vulnerabilities that you don’t know about, and it’s the student’s job to find those vulnerabilities and break into those servers,” Donahoo said. “You’d much rather your employees find your weaknesses and fix them than you would the bad guys from the other side of the world find those weaknesses and exploit [them].”

These same skills honed in the team competition could be used for nefarious purposes. Students were strongly warned against hacking networks in real life. The HackFest competition used its own isolated network which allowed teams freedom to experiment with impunity, but Donahoo said hacking other networks comes with real consequences.

“These are real skill sets that we’re developing; these are real attack machines that are sitting on top of these students’ desk and they can cause real damage out on the open internet,” Donahoo said. “We build a closed-in network that allows them to experiment, but if they were to take these skills and apply them to some corporate network or the McDonald’s wi-fi it would be bad… law enforcement doesn’t look too kindly on hacking public resources.”

The HackFest team competition was open to more than just computer science and engineering students; Donahoo said any student with interests relating to cybersecurity could get involved.

“Students can get involved when they have an area of interest that relates to cybersecurity, and it turns out just about every area of interest relates to cybersecurity,” Donahoo said. “We have a wide variety of students that are competing in the competition this year… I just met two pre-med students that are freshmen that are competing.”

For lighter fare, HackFest also featured a cyber-escape room. The escape room tasked participants with using common exploits to log into and gain access to files on a computer. Will Telfer, an information security analyst for Baylor, said the escape room was designed to be a fun and easy way to learn what not to do to keep one’s information secure.

“We were trying to come up with a way to teach people about cybersecurity and to educate them about things not to do in a fun manner,” Telfer said. “It’s real simple stuff; a lot of it should be obvious that you shouldn’t do like write your password down and leave it near your computer. This was supposed to be an easy challenge.”