Students ready for third consecutive National Cyber Analyst Challenge finals

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For the third year in a row, a team of students from the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) will compete in the finals of the National Cyber Analyst Challenge, set for April 12-13 in Philadelphia. The competition identifies the nation’s top students pursuing cyber-related degrees and encourages the development of strategic skills involving cyber analysis, threat identification and mitigation planning.

In the competition, participating universities field teams to investigate a fictitious cyber incident by analyzing a data set across three phases of increasingly challenging scenarios. The five-person Penn State team consists of IST students David Brilliant, Staton Harris, Eric Hite, Frank Longo and Matt Ruff. Several of the students were also part of a Penn State team that recently placed fourth nationally in the Deloitte Foundation Cyber Threat Competition.

The first phase of the competition tasked the team with processing and organizing more than 250 GB worth of network logs and forensic data from a theoretical company that was hacked. The group broke this data into smaller, more actionable chunks and assigned roles to each team member to create an incident response. Then, they presented known security issues and offered recommendations to an executive team.

“Phase I forced our team to learn how to use new tools and analyze a large data set within a short period of time,” said Brilliant. “In a normal class lab, we would expect to be given a few megabytes worth of data, but this event gave us so much data that our laptops couldn't even process anything until we learned how to correctly break it down.”

"There was so much data that it proved difficult to analyze,” added Longo. “Our team quickly learned that we had to start looking for patterns if we were ever going to get through everything.”

The team recently completed the competition’s second phase, which consisted of a series of virtual workshops related to effectively remedying and mitigating threats. Now, the students are preparing to compete in the finals against teams from nine other universities and hope to showcase Penn State as a leader in cybersecurity education.

“This competition is well-suited for students in our cybersecurity-related programs,” said Nick Giacobe, assistant teaching professor of IST and the team’s faculty adviser. “Students are analyzing a variety of data from different sources, pulling it together in a comprehensive analysis, and presenting those findings to a top-level executive.”

Details on the final task are kept secret until the third phase begins, but the students are eager to bring their cybersecurity expertise from the classroom to a broader situation.

“Experiencing a scenario with much larger data sets than seen in class gives you the opportunity to learn how to properly dissect, organize, and analyze the information given,” said Brilliant. “You also get to leverage your analytical skills learned at Penn State in order to formulate the best possible presentation to properly convey the facts up front and accurately.”

Added Giacobe, “The competition requires a blend of skills including those from programming, technical cybersecurity, analytic thinking and risk analysis. These are the skills we teach our students in the classroom, and this style of competition allows them to pull them all together.”

And while real-world exercises are a regular part of their IST education, Longo agreed that the competition is a chance to put knowledge into action.

"This event is one of the defining points in my undergraduate career,” said Longo. “It allowed me to implement many of the topics I learned in class, while also giving me the opportunity to learn new ones. It pushed me to understand the situation technically but also how to communicate that situation properly. Both are essential skills in today's cybersecurity landscape."

For reaching the finals, Penn State will receive an award of up to $10,000 to support student, faculty and curriculum development. The winning team, to be selected by a panel of industry experts, will receive $20,000. Powered by NBCUniversal, Vanguard, Leidos and Pfizer, the three-month competition is administered annually by Temple University's Institute for Business and Information Tech.

Last Updated May 01, 2018