Battling cyber terrorism: KSU has Southeast Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition

KENNESAW — College students from around the Southeast competed this week at Kennesaw State…

Georgia (Apr 2, 2014)KENNESAW — College students from around the Southeast competed this week at Kennesaw State University to see which team could best battle a group of “cyber terrorists.”

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The Southeast Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition was at KSU from Monday through today.

More than 70 students representing eight universities, including KSU, Mercer University, Clemson University and Florida State University, competed for 15 hours over the three days.

The event is designed so information-security students can garner hands-on experience in protecting business information systems and networks when faced with real-world cyber attacks.

For nine years, KSU has sponsored the event. The winner will go to the national competition in San Antonio, Texas, later this month.

Although a KSU team has yet to win the regional competition, Herb Mattord, a KSU assistant professor of information security and assurance, said missing the No. 1 position only means there is more to learn.

“Always close, but never at the top,” he said.

This week’s scenario involved an attack by fake terrorists, where a massive breach in a company’s server occurred. 

Instructors periodically enter the competition playing fictional roles, such as a CIO who has fired his first incompetent information technology department and hired an all new staff.

During KSU’s spring break, eight classrooms are taken over with multiple laptops and desktop computers connected with several feet of colored wire.

On Tuesday afternoon, captains yelled to their teams, “Is the issue resolved or unresolved?”

Theoretical knowledge, practical application

Each team at the competition is scored every minute on how they manage and protect a corporate network infrastructure.

More than 40 information security industry experts serve as impartial judges.

The teams only battle the competition itself, not each other. All the teams fight until the end of the three-day event. Mattord said a team’s score accumulates over three days.

“All the sins of the past come to the present,” he said.

Sneaking inside a closed door at the end of the hall, not far from where the teams are diligently solving problems, is the headquarters of the fictional terrorist group. 

These 17 professionals penetrate the students’ networks and simulate cyber attacks. Each team can react differently to the same problem.

“The first flare went up” at the start of the competition, Mattord said. From then on, the fake hackers have been “making trouble” and “starting fires.”

On a projected screen in a special room are eight boxes with scores of how teams are keeping their systems running. 

A bright lime green is a good sign. Teams with many indicators highlighted in red means there is a crisis.

“To politely put it, they evaluate the teams’ defenses,” Mattord said.

Eric Smith, 38, works in Alpharetta and has helped with the competition for five years.

“In most of our real jobs, we aren’t allowed to be destructive,” he said.

Although, Smith admits because of some novice mistakes by the students, “in these competitions, it is often self-inflicted pain.”

Smith said teams will lose points if there is a system failure that would have a negative effect on the company’s brand or bottom-line revenue.

In the real world, these data breaches have consequences when it impacts the public. For instance, in December 2013, a compromise in Target’s systems affected up to 110 million customers.

From KSU to SunTrust

The information security and assurance bachelor’s degree program, in the information systems department, launched in 2005. Three years ago, the department moved within the Coles College of Business.

“All of our students are business majors first and technology students second,” Mattord said.

The degree prepares students for jobs with multinational banks, retailers and manufactures in risk management.

After graduating from Harrison High School in west Cobb, Jon Anderson, 36, was working as a contractor before returning to college.

Anderson graduated from KSU in 2013 with dual majors in information systems and information security and assurance. 

Now, he is an assistant vice president on the security assessment team with SunTrust, which employs several alumni from KSU’s information systems department.

“They kind of heavily recruited me,” Anderson said.

Anderson’s interest in risk management first began because he liked problem solving, but that has grown into a passion for protecting information from being accessed, processed and shared.

To have success in a risk management job, Anderson said, students must learn to be good at project management by delivering accurate information on time.

“In the corporate world, details are extremely important,” Anderson said. “Anything missed could be catastrophic.”

Anderson said the competition teaches students how to handle stress while defending vast assets from threats.



A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers more than 150 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its approximately 38,000 students. With 13 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia and the third-largest university in the state. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the region and from 92 countries across the globe. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status, and one of the 50 largest public institutions in the country. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.

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