Defense Wins Championships

On a recent weekend, when most of us were busy trying to stay ahead of the craziness of another holiday season, a team of six students from UNC Charlotte’s College of Computing and Informatics (CCI) was busy defending an oil pipeline’s control system from a potentially devastating cyberattack.

Not, literally.

The CCI squad, advised by Assistant Professor Tom Moyer, participated in the Department of Defense Cyberforce Competition. Spread across the country in seven DoE labs, teams from 62 colleges and universities learned a number of critical DoE systems and developed strategies to defend them.

It is anticipated that as many as 1.5 million cybersecurity jobs will go unfilled in 2019. The DoE is helping shrink that gap by offering hands-on cyber education to students and professionals, increasing awareness of the need for qualified cybersecurity experts and expanding our basic understanding of cybersecurity challenges through real-world experiences. The Cyberforce Competition is an important element of that initiative.

“It is important,” said Moyer, “that students learn to work as a team in an environment similar to what they can expect to experience once they enter the workforce.”

The competition encourages unique defense strategies and techniques to safeguard assigned cyber assets. Distinct to this competition, a cyber-physical device is provided to each team, allowing participants a real-world understanding of the implications for defending critical infrastructure. For example, when a power distributor is compromised, the participants may see a light bulb go out or a water pump stop which indicates a loss of power or an interruption in water being distributed.

Teams are scored on their “out-of-the-box,” innovative ideas and defenses, but also the ability to address threats without allowing an interruption to the system’s operation or daily workflow of its operators.

The CCI team, comprised of Trevon Williams, Trey Kelly, Shail Sandip Patel, Parker Garrison, Mike Petty and Rawan Al-shaer, finished third among the 12 teams working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee – and in the Top-20 nationally.

At one point during the 8-hour exercise, a group of more than 30 professional attackers representing the threat threw all of its resources at the CCI team and was thwarted, earning CCI’s squad high praise for using a variety of technologies to prevent the “enemy” from making changes to the system being protected.

“Our team used a tool called Sensible to automate the process of configuring their systems. This enabled them to focus their efforts on other, more difficult problems, and let the tool do the “easy” things, said Moyer. “The attacking team noticed this and said that it was a great idea because in addition to allowing the team to focus on bigger problems, it frustrated the attackers even more.”

Each member of the team learned something fresh about cybersecurity, but also about themselves and others. Undeniably, the exercise reinforced that to be competitive, and ultimately successful, teamwork is required.

For more on DoE’s Cyberforce Competition, visit:

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Pictured (Left to right):
– Dr. Tom Moyer
– Rawan Al-shaer
– Shail Sandip Patel
– Trevon Williams
– Trey Kelly
– Mike Petty
– Parker Garrison