ASU earns best finish ever in cybersecurity competition

Fulton Schools students look ahead after successful, short-handed year

June 20, 2022

Cybercriminals look to exploit gaps in intelligence and information security networks to steal what they are after. Their methods are continually evolving, and so too must the efforts of cyber defense teams.

Each year the Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, or CCDC, provides college students across the country an opportunity to flex their cyber skills in a competitive environment. It also highlights the students’ competency in managing the challenges that come with protecting corporate network infrastructure and business information systems. Members of ASU's Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition team pose for a group photo. Arizona State University’s team took third place overall and first place in the defense category at the Western Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. The competition is designed for college students to practice their cyber defense skills against seasoned hackers, and encourages teamwork and collaboration. Pictured from left to right: ASU cybersecurity researcher and team coach Ankur Chowdhary, information technology major David Lee, computer science major and team captain Leilani Sears, and computer science majors Daylam Tayari, Thad Shinno, Joseph Hand and Fahad Alothman. Photo courtesy Ankur Chowdhary Download Full Image

The CCDC features a national competition preceded by nine regional competitions around the country. As part of the Western Regional CCDC event, students from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University compete against teams from Arizona, California and Nevada.

The competition is meant to simulate what a security team within a business setting would experience while monitoring their environments and during live attacks. The scenarios enacted over the course of the event are a good example of what a high-stress environment could look like in cybersecurity, and they demonstrate the need for teamwork and collaboration.

This year, led by captain Leilani Sears, a computer science major in the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence, one of the seven Fulton Schools, the ASU team had their best finish ever in the Western Regional. They won third place overall and first place in the defense category. ASU has competed annually in the competition since 2015.

“The competition is centered around a simulation of a business environment that is undergoing live attacks throughout the duration of the competition,” Sears says. “Ultimately, the purpose is incident response, cyber defense and monitoring a diverse infrastructure while completing business tasks such as configuring systems, providing comprehensive reports and risk analyses of vulnerable systems.”

Each year the teams are given scenarios with new themes to keep the competition fresh. A previous year featured a shipping company being attacked by hackers, and this year, teams simulated working for a multi-service provider themed around clowns. CCDC is the first collegiate competition of its kind to specifically focus on the operational aspects of managing and protecting an existing “commercial” network infrastructure.

The scenarios highlight the unique challenges various infrastructure configurations will bring in terms of defense and hardening. In computing, hardening is the process of securing a system by reducing its surface of vulnerability; so, a single-function system is more secure than a multipurpose one.

For this year’s competition, ASU used the strategy of role-based task separation — an approach centered around roles and the delegation of tasks to each role.

The team’s main objectives were to harden what they could and ensure there was always at least one person working on the business tasks that were assigned throughout the competition.

“We trained students on different domains of the competition,” says Ankur Chowdhary, team coach and cybersecurity researcher at ASU. “The team understood the setup of the competition and used experience from previous years to segregate the overall competition into different areas of concern.”

The team’s computing infrastructure for their fictional multi-service provider was split into Windows-based and Linux-based operating system environments, so they dedicated members to admin roles to manage operations in each domain. Another key component of their strategy was a firewall defense of the infrastructure, and another student was trained on the operation and management of the firewall.

“Communication was also key, and ensured we were able to coordinate successfully, especially when it got incredibly hectic all at once,” Sears says.

She says this year’s competition also posed a unique challenge: an understaffed team.

“Typically, there will be eight people active throughout the competition,” Sears says. “This season we had six people, so many of us had to jump around and serve as floaters to ensure tasks were being finished accordingly.”

Having competed in CCDC for several years, the team was able to draw upon past knowledge from Chowdhary as well as veteran members who would give insight into the competition very early into the season.

“As team captain, I was also able to implement strategies for coordinating and communication as I could pinpoint where we have struggled in past seasons and make it an initiative to fix,” Sears says. “Throughout training and practices that led up to invitationals, qualifiers and regionals, we were able to strengthen the skills we lacked, focus on further developing our defensive strategies and write scripts and practice with tools as necessary.”

Sears and Chowdhary say that ASU cybersecurity students from both the Tempe and Polytechnic campuses are encouraged to get involved for the upcoming 2022—23 season.

“Every season our roster is formed through members from our cybersecurity club, DevilSec,” Sears says. “Interested members who display a willingness to learn and compete are welcomed warmly onto the team.”

Erik Wirtanen

Web content comm administrator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU alum testifies before US Senate Judiciary Committee on DACA, her American dream

June 20, 2022

Last week, Arizona State University alumna Dalia Larios testified before the United States Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety about her personal experience as a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipent.

Sen. Alex Padilla of California called the hearing to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and more than 20 years that have passed since the first introduction of the DREAM Act. Screenshot of former ASU student Dalia Larios during her testimony before the United States Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety. Former Arizona State University student Dalia Larios testified before the United States Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety on June 14. Download Full Image

The testimonials were designed to reinforce the need for a permanent solution for young, undocumented immigrants and increase international STEM-focused talent needed to drive innovation and demand in the United States.

“We urgently need to expand DACA and codify permanent protections for dreamers into federal law," Padilla said. "In order to maintain a healthy and competitive workforce, we must vote, foster the talents of young Americans and do more to attract and retain the best and brightest minds from around the world, and that begins with us addressing immigration policy.”

The hearing, which featured testimony from Larios and two other experts, took place June 14 at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C.

Larios testified virtually about her personal story as an undocumented immigrant and the impact of DACA on her life. She first came to the United States at the age of 10 and embarked on her resilient journey to pursue a career in medicine. She also reflected on the daily reality of countless immigrants who experience fear and family separation.

“The thought of deportation is exceptionally painful to bear. Most days, I don’t allow myself to think about it; it would mean losing everything and everyone I know,” Larios said in her testimony. She received a degree in biological sciences from ASU in 2012.

Larios, who is currently a resident doctor treating cancer patients at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Harvard Radiation Oncology Program, commented on how she grew up seeing her mother, a housekeeper, and father, a construction worker, struggle — and, ultimately, how they motivated her to strive for success.

While Larios graduated summa cum laude from ASU, she too felt the need to work just as hard due to the high costs of her desired medical career and her legal status as an undocumented worker.

Then, when DACA was created in 2012, Larios was able to take a gap year to work and earn money to pay for the medical school application process. By 2019, she became the first DACA recipient to graduate Harvard Medical School with honors.

“Although I'm proud that the program continues to stand today,” she said, “I'm disappointed that even after a decade, our future is still uncertain, and our anxieties around deportation have not been abated.”

When asked by committee member Sen. John Cornyn of Texas whether providing stability for DACA recipients or providing employment-based green cards for people with advanced degrees should be a priority, Larios emphasized how important it is for all immigrants to have the same opportunities.

“I personally don't consider myself more deserving than anyone else,” she said. “I think that Congress should approach this in a comprehensive manner, thinking about the fact that lives are at stake here. This is a topic that extends beyond just a piece of paper, that it's somebody's livelihood that we're talking about.”

Larios pointed to a June 2020 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) to make the case for the essential role that immigrants have played during the global pandemic in the health care field — a time that also projects a shortage of 124,000 physicians within the next 12 years. As a physician, she added, she worries about the impact that shortage will have on patients she and her colleagues care for.

“There’s nearly 30,000 DACA recipients in health care and about 200 medical students and residents who again have (been impacted by) DACA,” Larios said. “If you look at those nearly 200 medical students and residents, they will touch the lives of 1.7 to 5.1 million patients.”

Larios was asked by Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota for her opinion on a viable, long-term pathway to awarding permanent status to DACA students.

“Something to emphasize about a lot of these issues is, at least for DACA (recipients) … we live two years at a time. We apply, we cross our fingers, hold our breath and hope that there's an acceptance on the other side, but living like this is not a life,” Larios said.

Watch the full testimony on the Senate Judiciary Committee website and read her written statement here.