Kennesaw State Wins Regional Cyber Defense Competition

Staff Report From Metro Atlanta CEO

Wednesday, April 29th, 2020

Kennesaw State University recently took first place in the Southeast Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition and will go on to compete for the national title in May. This is the first time Kennesaw State has won the competition, which it has overseen since 2006.

The winning team consisted of 12 students from the information security and assurance, cybersecurity, information technology, and computer science degree programs. This month, they competed against teams from six other regional universities in a simulation that cast them as system administrators defending their organizations against cyberattacks. The competition was held virtually, with students joining their teams remotely via web-conferencing.

While the competition requires participants to put their technology skills to the test by configuring computer systems and networks to defend against attacks from world-class penetration testers, the event also asks students to demonstrate their business acumen.

“The biggest thing that led to our win this year was how we focused on the business side of things,” said Stuart Smith, team captain and a senior ISA major. “The name of the competition is misleading, as it's only partially about cyber defense. The name of the game, and the thing we were most focused on this year, was completing our assigned tasks on time. That's what really got us the win.”

A key component of the competition is each team’s ability to respond to additional tasks – called business injects – assigned by the corporate headquarters (competition officials). Business injects can be anything from installing and modifying their systems to developing reports and presentations to keep the business informed on the team’s progress. The competition is as much about managing business tasks and communicating with stakeholders as it is about securing computer networks.

“We were constantly checking our team’s email because a new list of business injects could arrive at any time,” said co-captain Emily Gilmer, a senior ISA major. “Time management, teamwork, good communication skills, and organization were the keys to our team’s success.”

The SECCDC was founded in 2006 by Michael J. Coles College of Business faculty members Herb Mattord, interim chair of the Department of Information Systems, and Mike Whitman, executive director of the Institute for Cybersecurity Workforce Development. The event is part of a national network of competitions sponsored by Raytheon.

While Kennesaw State has hosted the in-person competition 14 of the last 15 years, social distancing requirements amidst the COVID-19 pandemic meant the event had two weeks to reimagine itself as a virtual competition. Organizers partnered with Moraine Valley Community College to use their Netlab+ remote access solution, which allowed competitors to access affected computer systems from their homes.

Each February, the SECCDC qualifying round is held online using the same Netlab+ technology, meaning students are already familiar with it. The only difference is that team members work together in the same physical space during the qualifying round, while they each had to be isolated during the main competition. Kennesaw State won the 2020 qualifying round against 33 other colleges.

ISA Professor Humayun Zafar has coached the cyber defense team for seven years. While moving to a virtual event created some challenges, he believes the team’s previous experience with Netlab+ helped them adapt.

“I think the virtual environment was actually beneficial to us since the students are already comfortable with it,” he said. “On top of that, the students have all made full use of virtual communication channels during their practice. There’s a comfort zone there.”

While Kennesaw State has hosted the SECCDC, this was the first year the school took the top spot.

“Finally hearing Dr. Whitman say our name as the number one team was a huge deal for me and the rest of the team,” Stuart said.

Stuart and the rest of the team are now preparing for the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, which will also be held virtually on May 23-24.

The SECCDC victory comes at a time when Kennesaw State has been bolstering its cybersecurity offerings. In February, the Board of Regents approved the University’s new graduate-level Master of Science in Cybersecurity program, which will launch in the fall. And last spring, Kennesaw State graduated its first student in the undergraduate Bachelor of Science in Cybersecurity program.

Competitions like the SECCDC help reinforce the important link between business and technology that sits at the heart of the cybersecurity discipline, said Whitman.

"The KSU team demonstrated what we have always believed from the start," he said. "It's the balance between technological skill and business acumen that makes a successful cybersecurity professional."