Cyber@UCI, a team of UC Irvine cybersecurity competitors, earned a fourth-place showing in the recent National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in Austin, Texas. UC Irvine was represented by (left to right) faculty advisory Alfred Chen (assistant professor, computer science), Joshua Chung (senior, computer science), Charles Wu (senior, computer science), Dhruv Kandula (freshman, computer science), Akshay Rohatgi (freshman, computer science), Jacob Lee (junior, computer science), Steven Ngo (first year PhD Student, software engineering), Payton Erickson (Winter 2024 graduate, computer science), Cara Failer (senior, software engineering). UC Irvine

The eight-member Cyber@UCI club from UC Irvine achieved a fourth-place finish in the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition held recently in San Antonio, Texas.

“The Cyber@UCI team has made history by achieving its highest national rank ever,” said faculty advisory Alfred Chen, assistant professor of computer science.

The NCCDC was the culmination of a months-long, multi-event contest involving 198 universities and colleges across the United States. The UC Irvine team earned their place in the national tournament by winning second place in the Western Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in April, edging out the 2023 national championship-winning team from Stanford University. Cal Poly Pomona took first place.

“Cyber@UCI’s previous entry into the national finals of the CCDC first happened in 2021, so this year marked the second time in UC Irvine history for this to be achieved,” said Chen.

Team member Cara Failer, a UCI senior majoring in software engineering, said, “When we knew we were headed to Texas to compete in the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, we began to prepare as best we could, but at the end of the day, we went in completely blind.”

Teams are tested and scored on their ability to detect and respond to attacks from the outside while maintaining access to existing services such as email and connectivity to the web. While they’re involved in cyber defense the teams must respond to routine business requests, balancing incoming demands against security needs.

Failer said the competition took place over two days in which the team defended two networks, wrote more than 30 injects (business-related tasks such as developing an incident response policy, outlining security strategy and configuring users and security measures0, and they fielded more than 20 user requests. They also were required to give a presentation as part of the competition.

“In our competition room, we banded together, schemed and cheered each other on as we fought to keep our networks safe from one of the toughest Red Teams we’ve ever faced,” Failer said. “Lesson plans, training, brainstorming, curveball after curveball… Our showing in this competition made it all worthwhile.”

Chen said the CCDC is the largest college-level cyber defense competition in the United States, with nearly 200 colleges and universities each year. The competition begins with nine regional events. The winner of each regional goes on to the national contest. Silver medal winners in the regionals compete with one another in a wildcard match with the winner becoming the tenth competitor in the national event.

According to Bryan Cunningham, executive director of the Cybersecurity Policy and Research Institute at UC Irvine, the CCDC gives participants exposure to skills, techniques and methods they can use in their future careers.

“Our students continue to not only make us proud but to make themselves even more competitive as cybersecurity professionals,” he said. “There simply is no substitute for this kind of experience.”

According to Cyber@UCI player Charles Wu, a senior in computer science, the competition was the very definition of applied cybersecurity.

“Through this experience, Cyber@UCI team members were able to learn extremely technical skills such as how to use security information and event management tools, how to defend a corporate network and how to perform and mitigate cybersecurity attacks,” Wu said. “But more importantly, we learned to make these decisions considering uptime for customers, corporate policy and the simulated company’s bottom line.”

Failer said she is proud of her team’s performance this year, and she’s looking forward to future opportunities to compete.

“Against the strongest college teams in the nation, we placed 4th overall, and we are incredibly proud of this achievement,” Failer said. “I could not have asked for a more incredible, hard-working team. Everyone did amazing and I’m willing to bet there’s no stopping this team now.”

Cyber@UCI club members are both undergraduate and graduate students in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences.