On a recent Friday night in The Cave, a student-run cyber warfare range tucked into a second-story corner of Tempe, Arizona’s University of Advancing Technology, three students attempted to stem the fallout from the collapse of a Monrovian bank. The bank’s computer systems were brought down by a hostile botnet and the violent riots that erupted were exacerbating civil unrest in the region. Sensing an opportunity, silent government drones began sinister flights above the protestors.
None of the students tasked with finding and stopping the Chinese cyber attack were over 25 years old, but all were willing to take on the assignment.
Granted, the mission was just a practice run for the UAT Wicked6 cyber team, but the scenario is neither implausible or improbable. Some in cybersecurity would argue it’s just a matter of time. The team was playing in a gamified cybersecurity training platform created by Circadence.
This is how Wicked6, the cyber competition that will take place at the HyperX Esports Arena Las Vegas on August 8, plays a vital role in building the nation’s cybersecurity workforce, particularly when it comes to increasing diversity in the field. The event will benefit The Women’s Society of Cyberjutsu, a nonprofit that trains and mentors women in cybersecurity.
UAT’s cyber team was assembled by Karina Salkin, an articulate 17-year-old who is friendly and clearly a natural leader. Decisive and assertive but never abrasive, Karina honed her soft skills during a stint managing her family’s auto dealership as an even-younger teenager.
“I had to work with people who would write me off because I was under age,” Karina said. “They would decide, ‘Well she’s sixteen, she can’t tell me what to do.’ So I had to work in teams in people who didn’t like me or who I didn’t’ like and I had to suck it up and deal with it basically.”
For her Wicked6 team Karina ultimately chose Jordan Nutt, 18, Jackson Nestler, 20, and James Rogers, 19, who is in another state and was unable to attend the practice.
“I’ve worked with all three of them in competitions before so I knew we would work well together, as well as we all know each other,” Karina said.
Technical skills were obviously a factor but Karina is also ever mindful of the team’s synergy.
“It takes being able to work together as a team and knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses and being able to lift each other up with that,” Karina said. “There’s no perfect approach and every team is different and so there’s always different dynamics.”
Before the cyber mission begins, the athletes qualify by answering five questions that test their technical knowledge. Once those are answered, a timer begins and the team is given what Jackson calls “incredibly vague” instructions on how to complete three tasks to disable the malicious bot.
Each person leverages their own strengths to benefit the team as a whole, volunteering to take on certain facets or filing in knowledge gaps.
“We all have different pieces of the puzzle, so if we work together, we can solve it,” Karina said.
Obviously, the cyber athletes enjoy the technical aspects of the competition but what they get out of it goes far beyond that.
Jackson admits he digs the adrenaline rush of competing but for him there’s a deeper satisfaction in knowing that what he’s doing will benefit him long after the competition is over in other ways.
“Who knows if I’m ever going to be in a situation where my network SMB shares are being brute-forced by a red team and they have a drone flying over my head just to mess with me,” Jackson said. “But the problem solving and my ability to deal with that stress most definitely will help me at some point in the future.”
For Karina, it’s a chance to leverage her competitive spirit into gaining more expertise.
“It’s really the challenge and the learning curve,” she said. “I particularly enjoy just how much I learn through competition.”
Jordan likes the competition, but revels in the continuous challenges a competitive environment presents. Recounting the virtual impossibility of defeating a live red team at the recent Western Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, rather than being frustrated he said “it’s always fun trying.”
And he knows he’ll leave every competition with a better understanding of the crux of the challenge, too.
What’s most striking about the team is how utterly aware they are that while they may be practicing a mission for a cyber competition, the skills they are developing have drastic implications for society.
In reality, every red team is basically a proxy for real-world, hostile nation states that are launching successful cyber attacks every single day. Today’s Target breach can easily be tomorrow’s municipal water treatment plant.
“I think that’s a big component of why I’m into it,” Jackson said. “To have the opportunity to interface with another country in a relative safety. I’m a big believer that yes, we may have more physical wars coming but the cyber component will be bigger and bigger.”
For now, the UAT has all the elements they need in place. A team that works well together, has competitive experience and a strong leader.
This is a team who is committed to making it to Vegas for the Wicked6 finals and you may very well see them there. Sign up now to attend!
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