Defending against hackers

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Students compete in last year’s CyberForce competition at Lobo Rainforest. Sandia National Laboratories will be hosting the regional competition again this Saturday. A team from the University of New Mexico will be competing. (Photo courtesy of Paul Billman)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Several computer systems will be under constant attack from hackers in Downtown Albuquerque on Saturday.

No vital systems will be at risk, but lessons learned from the attacks – and how to defend against them – could play a role in strengthening cybersecurity at New Mexico’s national laboratories in the future.

The simulated attacks will be part of the nationwide collegiate CyberForce competition, which is in its fourth year. It is sponsored by the Department of Energy. Sandia National Laboratories is hosting the regional competition for the second straight year at Lobo Rainforest.

“Last year, we had eight teams,” Sandia cybersecurity manager Han Lin said. “This year, we have 10.”

Among the 10 teams competing at Lobo Rainforest will be one from the University of New Mexico. Nationally, 105 university teams will compete at sites around the country.

“Cybersecurity is an issue across the U.S.,” Lin said. “The purpose of the competition is to give students a platform to practice and showcase their cybersecurity skills.”

“They will be defending against attacks that we will be throwing at them,” said cybersecurity specialist Will Atkins, who will be one of the hackers tormenting the students.

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Students compete in last year’s CyberForce competition at Lobo Rainforest. Sandia National Laboratories will be hosting the regional competition again this Saturday. A team from the University of New Mexico will be competing. (Photo courtesy of Paul Billman)

Each defending team – known as Blue Teams – will participate in a simulated environment. Last year, each team protected an oil transport system.

“We want to try to make it as realistic as possible,” Atkins said.

The students defending the systems are expected to have varying experience and skill levels, Lin and Atkins said, but most will have computer science and computer engineering backgrounds. College sophomores, juniors and seniors will compete.

“It takes what they know and gives them a chance to apply it,” Atkins said. “How would they use their skills in an attack?”

He and Lin said college students learn theory and principles in the classroom, but often have to work on their cybersecurity skills on their own.

“This is an opportunity for them to get exposure to what a computer analyst does,” Lin said. “It will expose them to challenges and issues they may face if they choose a career in cybersecurity. … It will also help us to be able to identify future computer analysts.”

Three students from last year’s competition earned internships at the labs. Two were offered full-time positions.

The students will defend against volunteer hackers – known as Red Teams. They will also have varying degrees of experience.

“Some will be from Los Alamos (National Laboratory),” Lin said. “That will give us a good opportunity to collaborate. Some will also be students.”

The competition will also give the “hackers” a chance to work on their skills.

“If you can understand how attacks are done,” Atkins said, “then you can understand how to defend against attacks.”

The competition, which will run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., is open to the public. Students from the Albuquerque Public Schools system will be among those observing.

Where: Lobo Rainforest, 101 Broadway NE

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