With just six months of competitive hacking under their belts, the Dos Pueblos High School team members made history and were invited to the finals of a university-level competition.
The 1064Cbread team members have known each other for years, and most of them have been programming since elementary school. It’s no surprise that many of their parents work in computer science and software engineering.
Seniors Delia Bullock, Andrew Dutcher, Charlie Green, Alex Meiburg, Sophie Russo and sophomore John Grosen make up the 1064Cbread team, which won its first competition — Toaster Wars — in May.
The Capture the Flag competitions have teams solve problems and find clues that they turn in for points, all while protecting their own programs.
Dutcher, Green, Grosen and Meiburg will compete against 14 university teams, including UCSB, at the finals of the Polytechnic Institute of New York University Cyber Security Awareness Week competition Nov. 14-16. They far outscored any other U.S. high school team in the previous 72-hour competition, which had teams from 82 countries.
The finals will be over a 36-hour period, but “the organization is coyly withholding the format,” Dutcher said. The winners get cash prizes and scholarship money.
When Green got the email saying Dos Pueblos was invited to the finals, there was “about 10 minutes of screaming,” he said.
“I saw Charlie running down the hall, and Charlie doesn’t run much, saying we’re going to New York!” Meiburg said.
Only two high school teams beat them, from Japan and Russia, but only North American teams are attending the finals.
None of the students had much interest in hacking until they heard about the Toaster Wars in April, Meiburg said. They got a perfect score and all realized how much they were drawn to the problem-solving world of hacking.
“Hacking is literally the best puzzle game ever created,” Meiburg said, adding that it has rules, but is flexible enough for someone to do anything they want.
Getting into hacking has also made all of their own programs more secure, which is tested when they hack each other and leave good-natured notes on each others’ servers, they said.
Their team is strong because they all have different interests, like finding bugs, math-centered cryptography and reverse engineering techniques. Everyone brings a laptop to the competition so they can work on different problems separately and then hand off the problems or work on tough ones together.
At the beginning, no one thought this would happen, faculty adviser Kevin McKee said. The students came to him for a signature so they could compete in Toaster Wars and now the team “has become a monster,” he said.
Their skills have surpassed the Advanced Placement Computer Science class at Dos Pueblos so they work with the hacking teams at UCSB and sit in on the graduate-level computer course with them.
It’s less of a class and more of a place to give presentations to each other and figure out problems together, Dutcher said. Plus, the university provides pizza.
The best way to keep learning, without the benefit of more classes to take, is to “find things you want to make and figure out how to make them,” Dutcher said.
Even though they do hacking competitions, they resent the stigma attached to the word. It’s become a synonym for computer criminal, even though the techniques can be used to make programs more secure and spot weaknesses, they said.
“What we do, it might be acting like a malicious person would but it’s using the same techniques that good guys do,” Meiburg said, adding that people need to know how to remove a virus and secure an application.
People think organizations such as the CIA and National Security Agency sponsor competitions like this for future hires, but they also know that software will become more secure with the more people aware of hacking potential and security issues, they said.
“It goes both ways,” Grosen said.
It’s more of a puzzle game, and shouldn’t be viewed as always being malicious, Russo said.
“You don’t get mad at people doing Sudoku!” she said.
They’re confident that they’ll perform well. After all, three of four are seniors so they aren’t that much younger than the undergraduate competitors.
Grosen’s father taught him to program games in elementary school, which was very appealing to a fifth-grader, he said. He couldn’t find a Twitter app for android that he liked in junior high school, so he made his own in seventh grade.
Dutcher has fond memories of fourth grade, when he had a math problem with multiple solutions and his father showed him how to make a program to calculate all the answers.
Green wrote a program to find all prime numbers so long ago that the computer would take 10 minutes between each one.
Russo didn’t want anything to do with computers until about a year ago. Both her parents are software engineers so all she heard growing up was computer this and computer that, she said. She took Advanced Placement Computer Science last year with McKee and realized how much she enjoyed the puzzle-solving part of it.
They all hope the team will survive after all the seniors graduate this year — and that’s up to sophomore Grosen, they said.
The rest of them are thinking about their futures after high school as they apply to universities.
Dutcher is interested in the information security business and thinks he’ll major in CS: computer something.
Meiburg is interested in pure mathematics and physics.
“I think it would be kind of cool to be a university professor,” Green said.
Russo and Grosen are less sure, but want to become entrepreneurs in the computer sector.