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Liberty teams secure successful finishes in national cyber defense competition

Student Nathan Higley was a part of a Liberty MetaCTF team that earned 17th place out of 1,017 teams.

Several members of Liberty University’s Cyber Defense Team and Cyber Defense Club landed among the top scorers in one of the country’s largest cyber defense competitions that included over 1,000 teams.

Seven teams of students and one team of alumni from Liberty participated last weekend in the MetaCTF CyberGames 2020, a 24-hour matchup in which four-person teams face off in a technological “Capture the Flag” match. Liberty’s teams achieved four top-30 finishes overall, including one top-10 finish.

According to team member Amanda Jones, the field of 1,017 teams was five times larger than the usual pool. She attributed the increase to the competition being held virtually rather than in-person due to COVID-19.

While the free competition is open to anyone interested in learning more about cryptography, reconnaissance, web exploitation, binary exploitation, reverse engineering, wireless analysis, and digital forensics, it also presents hefty challenges to the competitors up for the task.

Jones explained the tasks as a combination of solving a puzzle and playing the physical team game of Capture the Flag, completed by using technological abilities and virtual objectives.

“If you’re someone who likes puzzles, you would use rules of logic and math to solve them, and with a CTF, it’s similar in that there are puzzles, but you have to use all of your technical knowledge to solve those puzzles,” Jones said. “It’s an evaluation of how you can apply all of the technical skills you’ve developed.”

A livestream featuring a series of talks, problem walkthroughs, and sessions with well-known cybersecurity professionals was active throughout MetaCTF, which gave participants networking opportunities with sponsors and recruiters.

The teams for MetaCTF were made up of students on Liberty’s Cyber Defense Team, which receives support from the Center for Cyber Excellence under the School of Business, and members of Liberty’s Cyber Defense Club who have gained advanced skills in multiple areas of cybersecurity. Members of the Cyber Defense Team have consistently placed high in the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (MACCDC), having finished sixth and most recently third twice in the last three years, respectively.

“The most effective method for an individual to learn cybersecurity trade-craft skills is to participate in cybersecurity competitions, and the students who are participating are volunteering a lot of personal time and effort to compete,” said Richard Bansley, Liberty’s MACCDC faculty coach. “As a competition team faculty coach, I am immensely proud of the dedication of the large number of students who are volunteering to compete. The number of students competing, and the team’s placement in the final results for the 2020 MetaCTF clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of the student and alumni mentoring this year.”

Jones said the team hopes to enter more competitions this school year, with upcoming events nearly on a monthly basis. The next competition will be a “Hack the Box” CTF, held remotely in late November.

A weekly meeting of Liberty’s Cyber Defense Club

The Cyber Defense Club, of which Jones is the president, meets once a week and provides an introduction to cyber skills. Students are able to talk to club officers individually for guidance on more advanced tasks.

“We are trying to provide resources, education, and all the information needed for people to improve their skills,” Jones said. “We provide them with a starting placing and tons of resources where they can go to learn more advanced skills.”

Bansley said that the Defense Team provides mentoring to the club to equip attendees with the skills to compete in events like MetaCTF.

“The number of student teams participating in this (CTF) competition is evidence of the upward trend in the national demand for cybersecurity skills and Liberty University’s student success within the growing academic programs, student-led club programs, and student-led competitions,” he said.

Liberty’s seven student teams finished MetaCTF in the following positions out of 1,107: 10, 17, 27, 107, 163, 413, and 561. Out of 565 non-student groups, Liberty’s alumni team finished 15th.

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