One Lucky Day: Cyber Sleuths Shine at CSAW's Friday, November 13, Awards Day

Superstitions were no match for Polytechnic Institute of NYU’s Awards Day on Friday, November 13, when undergraduate, graduate, and high school students from across the country claimed top spots in the 6th Annual Cyber Forensics Awareness Week, a.k.a., “CSAW.”

The more than 100 participants could count themselves among the fortunate, having risen to the finals of CSAW’s cyber-security competitions, an accomplishment that put them ahead of the nearly 725 computer science students from the U.S. and Europe who registered for the preliminary online rounds of CSAW’s Application Security, Cyber Forensics, Embedded Systems, Research Award, and Security Awareness Poster competitions. (Quiz Tournament teams met their competitors for the first time on Awards Day, going head-to-head in four elimination rounds and a tense tiebreaker final.) “For the students who participated,” said Amanda Galante, “it was a homerun.”

Galante teaches at New Jersey’s Red Bank High School, where teens can take cyber-security classes, but she finds she doesn’t often have the time or background to develop real-life scenarios that allow students to apply their school lessons. So when she heard about CSAW’s cyber forensics challenge — this was the first year CSAW organizers designed a challenge specifically for high schoolers — Galante asked her students if they would like to compete. Their reaction was immediate. “I swear they did more research for this than anything I’ve ever assigned them,” she said.

Cyber security’s exponential growth

According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, cyber security will be one of the fastest growing industries between now and 2016.

That prediction may explain CSAW’s appeal for cyber-security professionals. Event sponsors, who included representatives from AT&T, Cisco, BAE Systems, L-3 Communications, and SANS Institute, among others, joined staff from other agencies with cyber-security interests, such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. Representing the latter and a judge for the research competition, Mark Althouse had nothing but praise for CSAW: “It’s one of the highlights of my year to come up and watch this stuff and see what’s going on.”

Althouse underscored the event’s value for job seekers: “If somebody had a résumé that said, ‘I placed at this competition at CSAW,’ then that means something.”

Grady Summers, General Electric’s chief information security officer, made an appeal to participants to go deeper into their cyber-security studies and research. In his keynote presentation, “Three Challenges to Winning in Cyber Security,” he delivered a compelling account of how increased security threats from an ever-growing and ever-more sophisticated pool of cyber criminals will all but guarantee job opportunities for talented cyber-security professionals.

A different type of cyber competition

Other competitions like CSAW exist, but according to Professor Nasir Memon, CSAW creator and director of NYU-Poly’s National Science Foundation-funded Information Systems and Internet Security (ISIS) laboratory, none is as all-encompassing, either in content or in outreach. “A student may have a talent in forensics analysis rather than in finding vulnerabilities,” he explained. “We span all these different areas of strength in security, whereas others are centered on one challenge and are either regional or online. Students don’t get together and meet.”

[GALLERY:2244|left]Perhaps that’s why Tom Anderson, a manager for Idaho National Laboratory’s Cyber Security Research and Development Department, described CSAW as “the biggest, best one I know of so far.”

The recent accolades showered on the competition contrast with CSAW’s modest beginning in 2003, when fewer than 100 students participated in the week-long event. “We just did it because we wanted to create a buzz about security,” said Professor Memon. “We wanted everybody on campus to say, ‘Hey, we have a great security program,’ and to come and play with us.”

That week-long event has grown tremendously in its six-year history. Students are now encouraged to register months in advance and spend weeks preparing their challenge submissions. And while it has and always will be at its heart an event run by graduate student members of the ISIS lab, NYU-Poly departments from University Relations to Marketing and Communications to Admissions play an increased role in promoting and organizing CSAW. 

Serious fun and games

NYU-Poly President Jerry Hultin gave special remarks at the Awards Day luncheon, putting the event in context with larger educational goals. “Today is an invention and innovation day in the sense that we’re using competition to really improve your learning and the products and services you’ll create,” he told attendees.

Professor Memon expanded on President Hultin’s remarks. “This may sound like a cliché, but we’re trying to build tomorrow’s leaders,” he said. “I would be very, very happy if this leads to people forming some sort of community where they get together and learn from each other and create relationships that they take with them.”

Professor Memon may already have his wish. “I still talk to last year’s finalists,” said Sevinç Bayram, a fourth-year PhD candidate who has lead CSAW’s Research Award competition since 2005.

“If I go into academia, these people will be my colleagues, right?” she continued. “I can collaborate with them. I get to know a lot of people. I become friends with them.”

After the competition, Bayram planned on going out with others who had participated in CSAW’s festivities. It was precisely the kind of conclusion Althouse described wistfully: “I wish that back in my student days there had been something like this to get involved in, because it looks like a hell of a lot of fun.”

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