There are very few competitions where the rules have to expressly prohibit hacking another participant’s computer.
On Saturday, the University of Montana hosted the inaugural Cyber Triathlon, which pitted teams against one another in a series of digital puzzles. The competition was the kickoff to Big Data Week, an international event focusing on the social, political and technological effects of data.
The tasks for the competition were designed by interns from LMG Security, a Missoula-based information security consulting firm. LMG founder Sherri Davidoff said the triathlon, and Big Data Week, were designed to encourage the development of cyber skills and high-tech education in Montana.
“We’re trying to position the state as a global center for cyber security,” she said.
The competition was split into three tasks, each of which centered on a different part of data-driven skills. First, the teams were required to analyze a set of raw network packet data – the information generated whenever computers talk to each other – and find strings of information hidden within hundreds of lines of data as part of a digital forensics puzzle. They then used the information to locate a photo hidden in the data that provided another clue to the puzzle.
The last section, and most difficult, involved teams coding an algorithm that could look through the large set of data, using a process called machine learning, where the computer is able to improve over time.
A common example of machine learning is the spam filter on email. As it “sees” more messages come through, it increases the sample set of spam emails and becomes better at accurately identifying and dealing with unwanted messages.
After they had successfully examined the data, the teams made their way over to a set of computers set up in another room, where they would have to use digital tools to find and exploit vulnerabilities and hack into the system.
The type of tasks set up for the competition would not be that different than the work that would be done by cyber security experts, or those seeking more nefarious ends. Bryan Schmidt, an intern at LMG, said the contestants on Saturday were “white hat” hackers, who use their abilities and knowledge to help improve security systems.
“When I look at what’s hot right now, it’s data science and cyber security. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a computer science job,” said Dan Cripe, chief technology officer of Advanced Technology Group, which sponsored the triathlon’s cash prizes.
Each of the participants spent the competition huddled close to their laptop screens, and whispered between each other to avoid having their strategies overheard.
The majority of the students at the triathlon were computer science students from UM, but a group of three Sentinel High School students also entered the triathlon, and managed to finish the first task ahead of their peers.
The high school students said their computer science teacher encouraged them to participate in the event, and they have been working on their own time to practice with the resources and tools given out to contestants beforehand.
“If the freshman beat the college students, that’s going to look bad,” said Ryan Sandau.
A team comprised of management information systems students from UM’s School of Business sped through the second task. The members of the five-person team said they felt more comfortable with the analytical nature of the first two tasks than the machine learning and coding work that would be required in the final challenge.
“We’re kind of learning this as we go along. Usually, we were relying on the hints they give out, but we either have to start working on guesses or wait for a while to get the first hint put up,” said Zak Nybo.
UM and Missoula are the smallest university and city taking part in this year’s Big Data Week, which includes more than 30 cities across the world. This is the first year Missoula is taking part in Big Data Week, which has been an annual event since 2011.
UM will host a series of presentations on Tuesday evening as part of Big Data Week. Students and faculty will present lectures on practical applications of projects they are working on with regards to data analytics and security. The talks cover issues such as using data for discovery in legal cases, how to use big data to improve marketing and applications for using large data sets to aid in psychological fields.
There will also be presentations at MonTEC and other locations around Missoula throughout the week. More information about Missoula’s Big Data Week and a schedule of events is available online at www.bigdataweek.com/missoula.