Students can 'hack it' at network security competition
05/18/2009

The picture of a hacker is not always an evil geek's pasty face shining in the light of a computer screen, eating TV dinners and mainlining caffeine while he does his evil deeds. Sometimes it's a regular-type Fort Hays State University student learning how to foil the evil geek.

Colorado State University in Fort Collins, provided that opportunity by inviting students from FHSU to compete in the Computer and Network Vulnerability Assessment Simulation on May 4, where students from several universities hacked a computer network for good, not evil.

With the importance of computer networks growing daily in a tech-centric society, it is becoming more and more critical to educate students in the protection of these networks from intruders and malicious users. CANVAS aims to do just that.

The event was founded and organized by Colorado State University and the U.S. Air Force Academy. Other participating universities this year included Colorado College, Colorado Technical University, University of Denver, Metropolitan State College and University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

"Few university students anywhere have the opportunity to be part of an information security-hacking competition organized by one of the United States military academies," said Dr. Mark Bannister, chair of the Department of Information Networking and Telecommunications. "Fort Hays State University's invitation to participate in CANVAS was a great honor, and our students performed extremely well."

FHSU was the only university in Kansas to be invited.

"CANVAS mixes up students from varying universities and colleges based on skill and area of expertise and requires them to form teams with people they've never met," said Bannister. "Among other reasons, this tests the students' abilities to work with others in a rapidly formed team in an intense environment."

"I was paired with two seniors from the United States Air Force Academy and one student from another Colorado university," said Tyler Thompson, Derby sophomore. "We quickly met and introduced ourselves, identified our particular skill-sets and decided how we could best use those skills to accomplish the goals of the competition."

The network, which was intended to resemble the Federal Aviation Administration's real-time air traffic control system, had security vulnerabilities intentionally inserted for students to find, exploit and report. The teams had four hours to assess the network and write a report.

"What made this challenging was that the report needed to be tailored to two different markets," said Thompson. "The CEO would not care about the technical aspects of what we attacked or how we did it, but would care more about what we could have done as a result of the vulnerabilities we found. The CIO, on the other hand, would be more interested in operational recommendations that could be implemented to secure the network after receiving our report."

Thompson's team received first place in the competition. Much of that had to do with their final report.

"Too often, technical people cannot break down the technicalities of hacking into terms that everyday people can understand and relate to business," he said. "Instead of saying, 'we hacked this and caused this damage,' we said, 'this is what we found and this is how our organization can improve your security posture in the future.'"

Events such as CANVAS provide undergraduates with a valuable hands-on opportunity to improve their knowledge of computer security, better understand the implications of security procedures, better understand how to protect the networks and how to become well-trained computer security professionals.

Jeff Baier, Chapman senior, and Jason Zeller, Assaria senior, said the lessons learned and experience gained from this event were so important that they have decided to set up a similar scenario over the summer for on-campus students in the INT department to work through on their own.

"We feel it was such an invaluable experience for those of us who attended that we needed to bring it back home to offer the same opportunity to the rest of our department," said Baier. "This is one more thing that will make FHSU unique and set us apart in the area of information networking."

Other students who attended are Daniel Pearson, Garden City junior, and Rick Yust, Hutchinson senior.

"All of the FHSU students did very well, and we are proud of them," said Bannister.


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Kent Steward, Director   |  ksteward@fhsu.edu  |  Kurt Beyers, Assistant Director   |  kbeyers@fhsu.edu