It has all the makings of a B-movie plot: A corporate network targeted by hackers and a half dozen high-school students as the company's only defense.
Yet, teams of students from ten different Iowa high schools faced exactly that scenario during a single night in late May in the High School Cyber Defense Competition. The contest tasked the teenagers with building a network in the three weeks leading up to the competition with only their teachers, and mentoring volunteers from local technology firms, as their guides.
On Friday night, May 19, and into Saturday morning, the students defended the network against a team of Iowa State University students acting as the attackers.
"As the hackers came in, you could see (the students') reactions: They were frustrated when they saw the attackers breach their systems and excited when they stopped the attack," said John Carr, a mentor for the team fielded by Valley High School of West Des Moines and senior solutions consultant with Iowa-based technology consulting firm QCI.
The contest between high schools followed the first national Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (CCDC) that took place earlier this year at the University of Texas at San Antonio, pitting four regional college champions and an all-star team from five U.S. military academies against each other.
The two tournaments mark a turning point for cybersecurity competitions from the mostly amateur affairs of the past to exercises throwing student, government and corporate competitors into the arena against each other. The competitions give students and professionals the opportunity to get hands-on experience responding to attacks, without serious consequences.
"At the end of the day, no data has been compromised and no one is going to get fired," said Timothy Rosenberg, CEO of White Wolf Security, a start-up company that has made a business out of running such competitions. "You can make an argument that this is not only good sport, but an excellent corporate security training exercise."
The U.S. government agrees. Since 2001, the U.S. military academies for the five branches of service have run an annual Cyber Defense Exercise pitting teams from each school against a Red Team consisting of members of the National Security Agency and attack specialists from the Army and Air Force. The DHS also funded the national CCDC competition in April.
"Exercises are an important way to improve our cyber security preparedness and having competitions like these are excellent ways to practice for the real thing," Andy Purdy, acting director of the National Cyber Security Division (NCSD) at the Department of Homeland Security, said in a statement marking the completion of the Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in April.