CyberPatriot World

June 1, 2012

A record number of teams—more than a thousand—representing all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Department of Defense Education Activity schools in Europe and the Pacific, entered the Air Force Association’s CyberPatriot IV cyber defense competition for high school students. Canadian students participated as well, with five squads from Manitoba competing as CyberPatriot’s first international teams.

The Open Division is for nonaffiliated teams, while the All Service Division includes high school teams with military ties, such as JROTC and CAP units. The two divisions compete in parallel competitions with their peer teams. In the Open Division, “Team Unknown,” representing Alamo Academies of San Antonio took home the President’s Trophy.

Students from Spokane, Wash., compete in CyberPatriot IV. (Photos by Chuck Fazio)

A team from Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, Wash., finished second in the Open Division, while Palos Verdes Peninsula High School from Rolling Hills Estates, Calif., took third.

In the All Service Division during the final round of competition, the “Wolfpack” of the Civil Air Patrol’s Colorado Springs, Colo., cadet squadron captured the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for its first place finish.

An Air Force Junior ROTC contingent from John R. Rogers High School in Spokane, Wash., took second. A fellow AFJROTC team from Clearfield High School in Clearfield, Utah, placed third.

After three rounds of long-distance competition that began last October, 26 winning teams traveled to the CyberPatriot IV National Finals, held March 22-23 at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center outside Washington, D.C. Twelve were All Service JROTC or CAP teams; another 12 finalists competed in the Open Division.

In addition, two Canadian teams participated in an international exhibition and observed the CyberPatriot finals firsthand.

As usual, the announcement of the winners stopped traffic in convention center’s nearby halls, as the teenagers let out their enthusiasm.

“There were certainly some loud cheers,” said CyberPatriot Commissioner Bernard K. Skoch, who attributes the continued growth of the event to good word-of-mouth from past entrants, hard work on the part of event organizers, and the efforts of AFA members to promote CyberPatriot in their communities.

“We are pitch up and full throttle,” said Skoch.

CyberPatriot’s founders take care to emphasize that they are not developing a new generation of hackers. They work to teach high school students how to deal with malware, viruses, system intruders, and other computer system security problems. Nor do they focus only on defense needs. Banks, universities, manufacturing firms, retail chains, even academia—in coming years all will likely see an increased need for cyber defense.

“We’re drawing cyber professionals to every aspect of the economy,” said Skoch.

Backed by AFA, presenting sponsor Northrop Grumman Foundation, as well as SAIC, the Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security, and other sponsors, CyberPatriot is intended to get kids interested in cyber defense, a 21st century field of great national need, as well as science, technology, engineering, and math.

The competitive nature of CyberPatriot aims to attract teens raised on video games. It also allows students with strengths in math and science a chance at the sort of interscholastic glory typically won only by sports stars.

In preliminary rounds, student teams battled each other from their own classrooms. At an appointed time, they downloaded simulated computer networks preloaded with security problems. They attempted to patch those holes and guard against new intrusions, while a central CyberPatriot server kept score.

“Team Unknown” from San Antonio celebrates as the Open Division winners. AFA Chairman of the Board S. Sanford Schlitt is at far left. (Photos by Chuck Fazio)

The best scores earned teams a trip to Washington for the spring final round. There, they competed in another network protection exercise, which included a live Red Team attack that the teams had to defend against.

Cyber Forensics

This time, CyberPatriot organizers added an extra twist to the championship round: a cyber forensics element. This involved teams entering a “crime scene” that contained cyber evidence of some sort. Teams received a crime scenario and a transcript of a suspect’s interrogation. Beyond that, they were on their own to figure out what happened. Their forensics score counted for 10 percent of their final numerical mark.

“The students just loved it,” said Skoch.

The forensics round, conducted by several Department of Defense Cyber Crime Center personnel, tested student skills not strictly related to computers. Teams had to search a “suspect” mannequin within specific guidelines, find additional evidence such as concealed memory devices and passwords, and determine how to use their findings. They needed the mental agility to analyze a situation, think critically about their evidence, and then attempt to work to a solution.

For most finalists this was not a problem, said Skoch. “By the time a team gets to the national finals, they’re working as a team,” he said.

Another notable feature of the CyberPatriot IV finals was the number of female participants. Though overall they remain in the minority, “their number more than doubled,” said Skoch, from seven in 2011 to 17 this year.

After four years of CyberPatriot experience, it is clear that a supportive community environment greatly aids the competitors.

A good example in this regard is the city of Spokane, which accounted for an amazing seven teams of the 26 in the finals. Of these seven, four came from John R. Roberts High School, and four of the city’s schools were represented overall.

Mentoring may have been the secret of Spokane’s success. Daniel Wordell, a former Lockeed Martin cybersecurity manager who is now supervisor for the Instructional Technology Support Center for Spokane Public Schools, rounded up 10 mentors, including five cyber specialists and three college students who had competed in past CyberPatriots. Teams learned to build Linux and Windows systems, focusing on cyber defense.

All Service Division winners, CAP’s “Wolfpack” from Colorado Springs, display their award. At far left is CyberPatriot Commissioner Bernard Skoch. (Photos by Chuck Fazio)

To encourage this kind of supportive environment, CyberPatriot has established a Centers of Excellence program to recognize communities that embrace the cyber competition concept. Officials have awarded two Centers of Excellence certificates so far: one to the Los Angeles Unified School District and another to the city of San Antonio.

The LA school system, in conjunction with local universities, has hosted a three-day cyber camp for teenagers and established a drop-in summer program to get cyber defenders ready for next year’s CyberPatriot, among other steps. In 2012, the district sent a team to the national finals for the second year in a row.

San Antonio’s business and community leaders worked together to help attract USAF’s 24th Air Force, the cyber-oriented command, to their city. Since then they’ve recruited mentors to train high school students interested in CyberPatriot and awarded leather jackets and other symbols of recognition to top cyber defense teens.

What do cities get with their Center of Excellence certificate? “They get more focused attention from us. And they get bragging rights, which we’ve learned are very important to teenagers,” said Skoch.

CyberPatriot V is now open for business. Registration began April 1.

Peter Grier, a Washington, D.C., editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “The Highest Ranking,” appeared in March.