Empty coffee cups and plates with half-eaten pizza littered the work area of UC Santa Barbara computer science graduate students on Friday, where about 20 experienced cyber hackers hovered over laptops and desktops.
The select few had spent the past six months preparing for the world’s largest hacking competition, an annual all-day international contest cooked up by UCSB computer-security experts.
More than 1,300 students on 123 teams from universities around the globe compete virtually against each other in an “International Capture the Flag” security challenge, with a $1,000 cash prize and bragging rights on the line.
The graduate students — hand-picked by UCSB professor Giovanni Vigna — were put in charge of running the show, monitoring the codes and making sure everything went smoothly from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
No wonder some of the students hadn’t slept in three days.
“There’s never enough preparation,” said Yan Shoshitaishuili, a 28-year-old grad student who was in charge of writing the scoreboard coding. “This competition can be really tough to follow sometimes. It’s hectic.”
This year’s competition theme was “Nuclear Cyber-Warfare,” wherein teams of students developed their own fictional nuclear weapon program on a server while simultaneously fending off cyber-attacks from other teams trying to block or hinder the program.
Graduate student organizers hunkered down in the entryway of Harold Frank Hall on Friday to monitor the competition scoreboard and overall programming, while other UCSB students — not privy to the predetermined program track — participated from computers elsewhere.
“The flag is actually a piece of data,” Vigna said in explaining what teams are trying to capture. “We have a bunch of students looking at code trying to find hackers.”
Vigna, who has organized the competition the past 12 years, said each team was also mining or building nuclear weapons and refineries as ways to also earn points
The competition allows UCSB to prepare the “cyber cops” of tomorrow, Vigna said, noting the need for more computer security engineers to prevent hacking sensitive information.
No one from UCSB has ever won the hacking contest before — usually Russian and German teams fare well — but the competition does wonders to raise awareness for the university’s security program, Vigna said.
“It’s just for the glory,” he said.