UMUC Team Wins Third in National Cyber Security Competition

By Elizabeth Schroen ( |   August 10, 2012

To stop a hacker, you first have to think like one. Four UMUC Cybersecurity students took on that challenge earlier this summer as they spent two grueling 10-hour days working against the clock to infiltrate networks, exploit software, decrypt data and ultimately prove their cyber security expertise. The UMUC Cyber Padawans won third in the Capture the Flag Cyber Challenge, sponsored by MITRE Corporation.

Mitre Competition 2012 Padawans team photo

From left, project leader Justin Wray with team members Benjamin Heise, Armando Quintananieves and John Arneson; coach Jeff Tjiputra looks on.

Cybersecurity at UMUC

UMUC offers a Bachelor of Science in Cybersecurity, Bachelor of Science in Computer Networks and Security; Master of Science programs in Cybersecurity and Cybersecurity Policy; and five graduate certificates. All programs are available entirely online.

In fall 2012, UMUC will introduce two new cyber security programs. The university will add an undergraduate minor in cyber security and the Master of Science in Digital Forensics and Cyber Investigations.

Learn more about UMUC Cybersecurity programs.

USM Positioned in the Epicenter of Cyber Security

Maryland is home to the U.S. Cyber Command, the national base for efforts to defend and protect U.S. information networks. Recognized nationally as the epicenter of information security and innovation, the state boasts vast resources of federal facilities, academic institutions, industry strengths and intellectual capital.

The University System of Maryland is educating the nation's next cyber leaders, offering cutting-edge cyber security programs at UMUC; as well as University of Maryland, College Park; and University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

The team, whose name is a nod to Jedi apprentices from "Star Wars," faced stiff competition, battling cyber warriors from 35 colleges and high schools across the country. The top five was rounded out by teams from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (first place), the University of South Florida (second place), Carnegie Mellon University (fourth place) and the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (fifth place).

The Padawans are comprised of Benjamin Heise, John Arneson, Armando Quintananieves and project leader Justin Wray. All of the team members are pursuing Bachelor of Science degrees in Cybersecurity or Computer Networks and Security.

Heise began his study at UMUC as a military servicemember in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and is now a stateside student.

"We had a great technical 'anchor' on the team who is a real powerhouse in the cyber security world," Heise said, referring to Wray. "When we got stuck, he would walk over and quickly get us back on track with a great suggestion or idea."

Diverse Group of Veteran Competitors

The Padawans are a diverse group that boasts strong credentials; Heise and Wray competed in the Global CyberLympics earlier this year representing their employer, ICF International, a technology firm headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia. They placed second in the world.

And last fall, the Padawans, along with the UMUC Cyber Dragons, reached the final eight in a statewide cyber security competition where 52 teams showcased their knowledge and skills in target hardening, forensic investigation and infiltration.

The Padawans are coached by Jeff Tjiputra, DSc, academic director of Cybersecurity and Computer Networks and Security for UMUC's Undergraduate School, with assistance from UMUC alumnus Chris Kuehl, who served as technical advisor.

Tackling the Challenges

Teams of up to five students competed in the Cyber Challenge, held July 9–10, proving their knowledge and skills in cryptography, server exploitation, forensics, reverse engineering and networking. Over the two-day competition, team members worked to solve 30 cyber puzzles ranging in value from 100 to 500 points. The Padawans' strategy was to attempt the toughest puzzles, which were worth the highest point values, first. Wray directed the team to break into smaller groups to work on challenges; they successfully completed 14 puzzles, earning a total of 3,100 points, Tjiputra said.

Leading up to the event, Tjiputra created a WebTycho classroom where members could chat, share information and practice for challenges. Although Padawans are located across the U.S., the team selected local students for this competition. Team members convened at the Academic Center at Largo to work collaboratively on-site.

It was the team's first time participating in the competition, which is in its second year. The Padawans' outstanding performance earned praise from UMUC Acting President Javier Miyares.

"It speaks both to the quality of the program and to the caliber of our students, many of whom already hold positions of responsibility defending our nation's vital and growing cyber infrastructure," Miyares said.

Real-World Scenarios

The Cyber Challenge is sponsored by The MITRE Corporation, Career Technical Education Foundation and (ISC)2. MITRE employees based the challenges on real-world examples, according to Jon Palmer, software applications developer and infrastructure tech lead for the Cyber Challenge. The scenarios required students to think like hackers, he said.

In one of the 500-point puzzles, the Padawans were asked to hack a database of fictitious student records to change grades. The challenge was designed to test how well the students could identify vulnerabilities in the various systems and databases. Team members had to inspect source code, query the database to produce an error and then enumerate the database. After decrypting passwords, the students wrote a script to find the one account among 25,000 with administrator privileges.

"The higher-level scenarios were realistic," Palmer said. "We wanted the 500-point challenges to take teams at the intermediate or expert level about two or three hours to complete. For novices, it would take five to six hours to solve."

MITRE sponsored the competition in part to start an internship pipeline for cyber security, Palmer said.

"We're trying to promote cyber security awareness and stimulate interest early," he said.

For the third-place finish, the Padawans received free entry to the next North America CyberLympics. They will compete with the hopes of advancing to the global level.

"We are planning on defending our title and have been hard at work on some custom tools to aid us," Heise said, referring to the second-place global CyberLympics title earned earlier this year.

Get Involved

UMUC students interested in joining the Padawans should e-mail