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Students compete in cybersecurity competition

November 2, 2020

cyber cupA major health system reports a cyber attack, just as a high-ranking official is scheduled to have a major operation at the hospital. The health system is reporting issues of changed electronic health records, concerns about the attack spreading to critical infrastructure and conflicting information about who is responsible for the attack. Duke students spring into action, briefing senior policy officials to help protect the health system and the official.

Though this simulated cyber attack is a scenario created by Duke’s Cyber student group for the 2020 Sanford-Crypsis Cyber Cup, the situation is a plausible one students might face in the working world, said Professor David Hoffman of the Sanford School of Public Policy.

“Cybersecurity is one of the nation’s most pressing issues – with connections to national security, the economy, elections, healthcare and infrastructure,” Hoffman said. “This competition trains students how to bring together disparate information to provide recommendations on an urgent issue of national importance – using a potential crisis scenario for critical thinking and response.”

In October, 45 Duke students divided among 14 teams competed in the Cyber Cup. The student teams created a two-page policy brief and a 10-minute presentation, posing as junior National Security Council staff providing a written and oral briefing to senior staff. The 2020 champions were Duke students Aden Klein, Nathan Ostrowski and Sophia Sacchetti.

young man smiling“We were thrown into this fictional world with disconnected email chains, classified documents, text messages and news articles that we had to unravel. We were working on limited, scattered information. It was a rush,” Ostrowski said.

Ostrowski is a sophomore with a passion for technology he has used at Duke, including work with the Wired Lab on AR/VR tools to help the Nasher Museum during COVID-19. His extracurricular activities include the Duke Cyber Club, which emailed him about the challenge.

“As soon as I got an email from Jess [Edelson], I texted my good friend and fellow University Scholar Aden Klein and said, ‘Want to form a Cyber Cup team?’ He immediately texted me back, ‘Was about to ask you the same thing,’” Ostrowski said.

young man, smilingAden Klein is a sophomore University Scholar double majoring in public policy and economics. He said the competition showcased how cyber policy can have a very real impact on the lives of Americans, from critical infrastructure to the privacy of medical records.

“Cyber and technology policy are incredibly important to me because they will shape several other areas of public policy in the coming decades. Besides national security and election integrity, cyber and technology policy also shapes policy decisions around development, business, privacy and citizen rights, free speech and information, and countless other considerations. Technological advances are reshaping the range of considerations policymakers must analyze, and a strong understanding of these developing fields is necessary to effectively govern,” Klein said.

young woman, smilingFreshman Sophia Sacchetti, who had previously participated in an NYU case competition with Klein, joined the team.

“I joined the cyber team as a way to explore this new interest of mine after talking to and meeting the president, Jess [Edelson] at Project Edge orientation around privacy concerns related to COVID-19 contact tracing; I was intrigued to learn more about cybersecurity,” Sacchetti said.

The trio spent the entire weekend working on the challenge, from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon.

“Although we had limited time to work on the presentation and brief, we definitely made the most of it. We spent the majority of Saturday working on the brief and then early on Sunday to practice our presentation and then present in the morning as well as the evening for the final round,” Sacchetti said.

“For the second round, we had under an hour to respond to new developments, so we moved quickly to put together a cohesive set of recommendations,” Klein said. “Cyber policy response is always a constantly evolving process. It involves anticipating the next move your adversary will make, minimizing risk that you can never completely eliminate, and responding as quickly as possible to new information.”

Hoffman said the competition was an opportunity for students to work together, learn a new topic and take risks outside of a graded class assignment – ultimately providing a deeper understanding of cybersecurity. The students all said that the competition strengthened their interest in cyber policy.

“After this weekend, I’m more eager than ever to get hands-on experience in cybersecurity and cyber policy,” Ostrowski said. “The whole world is digital. Hospitals, power grids, utilities, banks all rely on vulnerable digital infrastructure. With COVID-19, all of our interactions are now digital. Americans’ capacity to work, use electricity, have clean water, provide health care, make purchases and communicate all rely on vulnerable digital tools. Because breaches are inevitable, we need effective cyber policy to provide relief, manage messaging and act strategically on a global scale,” Ostrowski said.

“My career interests lie in government and policy work, and this event helped me explore a growing interest in national security and cyber policy as a potential career focus,” Klein said.

The competition student research team of Justin Sherman, Jess Edelson, Kamran Kara- Pabani, Joanne Kim and Micalyn Struble created the scenario and the logistics of the competition. The competition was sponsored by The Crypsis Group, which is a division of Palo Alto Networks and their Vice President Art Ehuan joined Professor Hoffman as the primary judges. They were joined by recent graduate Justin Sherman and student judges Jessica Edelson and Kamran Kara-Pabani.  Edelson is a junior, a Robertson Scholar and the president of the Duke Cyber.

woman smiling“As a research assistant for Professor Hoffman, I worked alongside my peers to design and organize the competition. Due to COVID-19, we adapted the event to meet the current needs of a remote working environment, and I was very excited to see students from all over the world come together to participate,” Edelson said.

Duke Cyber is a student-led organization focused on exploring the purpose, roles and implications of cyberspace and 21st century technologies. Students (undergraduate or graduate) interested in getting involved in Duke Cyber can contact Jessica Edelson at: Jessica.edelson@duke.edu.