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At the start of this year’s Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (CCDC), there were more than 160 university/college teams participating in the event designed to test the ability of undergraduate students to detect and respond to real-world security threats. Only 10 teams — one finalist from each region — advanced to the National CCDC in April. Among them was the UCI team, thanks to its first-place finish in the Western Regionals.

“This was our first time at nationals, and most of the other teams have been to nationals in recent years,” says Assistant Professor of Computer Science Qi Alfred Chen, who served as the team’s adviser. “I saw some other first-time national competing teams quickly drop to the bottom of the scoreboard due to lack of experience, but UCI fought like a veteran and did even better than some experienced teams.” UCI finished fifth overall. “To place national top 5, in our first trial, is absolutely a big achievement for UCI.”

The UCI team includes (left to right) Qi Alfred Chen (adviser), Jordan Whiting (captain), Reggie Dequit (top row); Sam Hansen, Brandon Nguyen, Jacob Bokor (middle row); Alan Nguyen and Ryan Blanchard (bottom row).

The team, comprised of seven undergraduate student members of the Cyber@UCI club and funded by UCI’s Cybersecurity Policy and Research Institute (CPRI), had to manage and protect a network infrastructure. “Competing in the national championships was a real milestone for the CPRI-sponsored team, and we could not be prouder of these enterprising students,” says CPRI Executive Director Bryan Cunningham. “They are well on their way to a great career in cybersecurity, and we will be delighted to provide continuing support for the team’s efforts in future competitions.”

Teams were scored based on their ability to detect and respond to outside threats, maintain availability of existing services such as mail servers and web servers, respond to business requests, and balance security needs against business needs. “It is actually the only nationwide cybersecurity competition that focuses on defense, simulating real-world situations that today’s companies need to face given today’s massive cyberattack threat landscape,” says Chen. “It is designed to directly train the students to excel in the day-to-day job of a company’s security team.” In fact, many of the NCCDC sponsors include the security teams of companies such as Amazon, Palo Alto Networks and Walmart.

“Leading the team for our first year at nationals was quite the experience,” says Jordan Whiting, the second-year computer science and engineering major who served as team captain. “Nationals presented a challenge unlike any other event we had ever participated in before, and we had our hands full the entire time, from managing our systems and completing various tasks to defending our network against a team of professional attackers,” says Whiting. “In the end, we had a lot of fun, learned a lot and can’t wait for whatever next year brings.”

The competition team is formed from members of the Cyber@UCI undergraduate cybersecurity club. In addition to participating in nationwide competitions, the club also offers cybersecurity workshops, hosts internal competitions (such as cybersecurity capture- the-flag tournaments) and provides opportunities for members to connect with cybersecurity professionals. “We are actively building a community of enthusiasts in hacking and cybersecurity,” said Chen. “Interested students are encouraged to join. Together, we can continue making history in UCI cybersecurity.”

— Shani Murray