A Cyber Force To Be Reckoned With

A team of six Eagles captured top rankings in the Department of Energy’s national cybersecurity competition.

The students of the CyberForce team standing in a Cyber Intelligence laboratory on the Prescott campus.
Students gained firsthand experience in issues related to national security and intelligence and working in a complex operational technology environment. (Photo: Connor McShane)

Representing Embry-Riddle alongside over 130 institutions from across the U.S., the team ranked fourth overall and first among undergraduate teams at the DOE’s 2021 CyberForce Competition in November.

In this year’s mock scenario, Cyber Intelligence and Security seniors Kestrel Carlough, Logan Knapik, Ethan Nadzieja, Ashton Richards, Brian Tigges and Grant Watts were tasked with securing and defending a hydropower plant from cyberattacks.

“To do well in the competition, we not only had to ensure that necessary services were running at all times, but we also had to prepare thorough documentation, present our findings to a panel of Chief Information Security Officer volunteers and defend our network against professional penetration testers,” said Ashton Richards.

A hydropower plant is a cyber-physical system similar to those students will find in the aviation and aerospace industries, according to Dr. Krishna Sampigethaya, chair of Cyber Intelligence and Security department.

“Preparing the next-generation workforce to protect these types of critical infrastructure against attacks is a goal of our cyber programs,” he said.

Prior to competition day, the team spent three weeks prepping their assigned virtual network. Their hard work resulted in a perfect score on system documentation – something no other team was able to do.

The virtual event attracted a record number of teams and posed a number of new challenges for participants, according to Professor Jesse Chiu, the team’s faculty mentor.

“They stayed curious, had the courage to explore and step out of their comfort zones and were very creative in finding solutions to unexpected issues that arose during the competition,” Chiu said.

Students in the College of Business, Security and Intelligence have participated in the immersive competition since 2018. Former Eagles like Andrew Recker (’19), now a senior cyber software engineer for Lockheed Martin, and Tyler Morris (’18), now a cybersecurity researcher and CyberForce co-lead at Sandia National Laboratories, provide continued support of current students and the program.

“It’s wonderful to see these connections between past and current students resulting in such a grand success for our cyber programs,” Sampigethaya said.

As a bonus, students also got valuable face time with industry professionals at the virtual job fair.

“We highly recommend this experience to students looking to build a deeper understanding of realistic cyber defense scenarios," Richards said.