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Three FIU students overcome the odds to compete in hacking competition

Three FIU students overcome the odds to compete in hacking competition

July 15, 2020 at 12:00pm

Earlier this year, more than 20 FIU students set out to compete in the Embedded Capture the Flag (eCTF) competition put on by MITRE, an American not-for-profit that brings innovative ideas to areas such as artificial intelligence, intuitive data science, quantum information science, health informatics, space security, policy and economics expertise, trustworthy autonomy, cyber threat sharing and cyber resilience.

By the time the competition came around, that number had dwindled to three competitors. Midterms, Spring Break and COVID-19 caused the numbers of the FIU team to diminish. Losing so many members presented a challenge to those that were left. Yet despite the challenges, these three FIU students, along with their mentor, Alexander Perez-Pons, managed to complete the competition and come in seventh place in a line-up of 20 high-profile schools.

The eCTF is an annual hacking competition designed to teach skills in cybersecurity with a focus on securing embedded systems. For this year's competition, each team designed security protections on a piece of music within a music device similar to an iPod or MP3 player. These protections prevented anyone from downloading the music illegally or from certain locations. Then, each team attempted to break into another team’s music file, accessing a piece of music or a code that counted as a “flag.” They did this by trying to find “holes” in the protections that would allow them to pirate the music.

The three students that competed were Claudio Lopez, Luis Acosta and Antonio Noriega. Lopez is a computer engineering graduate student. Both Acosta, a computer science major, and Noriega, a computer engineering major, are seniors within the College of Engineering & Computing. Perez-Pons is a senior instructor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

While Lopez and Acosta were a part of the team from the beginning, Noriega came in during the attack phase of the hacking competition, when the team attempted to break through the security measures installed by other schools. His job was to try and find holes in the other teams’ defenses.

“It was essentially a relay,” said Noriega. “I was handed the baton.”

The competition opened Jan. 15 and closed April 24. For the defense phase, before Noriega came aboard, Acosta and Lopez divided the work between themselves. They collaborated once a week for several weeks. Lopez did much of the coding, while Acosta was the organizer. Lopez captured the single flag the team obtained.

“We learned together how to divide the work,” said Lopez.

The event put competitors through exercises in which they tried to create a secure system and then learned from their mistakes. The main target was a physical embedded device, which opened the challenge to include physical and proximal access attacks.

All three of the students came to this experience with new eyes, having never competed before.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” said Lopez.

Just when the competition was about to close for submission, FIU transitioned to remote learning and work due to COVID-19. Luckily, due to the team’s organizational skills and the already remote nature of the project, the competitors were able to pull through. Most of the collaborations were already online.

“Functionally, it didn’t really affect the production,” said Acosta.

Given the skeleton crew and the challenges they faced, the three competitors accomplished what they had wanted to achieve.

“Congrats to the students - they were amazing given the high bar they achieved,” said Perez-Pons.

Acosta made sure to give a shout out to Perez-Pons, saying, “He put us under his wing.”

Noriega continued the praise, saying, “Pons is, by far, one of my favorite professors.”

Perez-Pons, in turn, tipped his hat to Bridgette Cram. “She brought the competition to FIU,” he said. Cram is the assistant vice president of Academic & Student Affairs. She is responsible for developing programs and partnerships within the university.

Acosta is graduating this summer and starting a full-time position at MITRE. Also graduating is Noriega, who will be starting an internship at NASA in June. Lopez is graduating in the fall and is deciding whether to pursue a Ph.D. or join the workforce.