The Charger Blog

What it Takes to Become One of the Nation’s Best Cyber Forensics Teams: Grit, Innovative Problem Solving, and Collaboration

Students say one of the best part of competing – and succeeding – at national competitions is the opportunity to network with executives at prominent companies.

December 18, 2018

By Jackie Hennessey, contributing writer

cyberforensics team
Cyberforensics team

The Tagliatela College of Engineering's Cyberforensics Team competes against universities with programs two, three, even five times their size and they continually find a way to win or become finalists in national competitions.

The team members – graduate students Justin Grannis, Trevor Haigh and Peter Casey and undergraduate Tyler Balon – are gritty and they don’t back down, said Ibrahim (Abe) Baggili, Elder Family endowed chair and associate professor of computer science.

They’ll puzzle over a problem and find their way around it as they did last spring when they were among the ten university finalists selected for the 2018 National Cyber Analyst Challenge (NCAC), described as “a competition that supports the best students currently pursuing cyberrelated degrees in the top programs in the nation.”

The University’s team advanced through the first and second rounds and, in April, they competed in the finals against teams including Brigham Young University, Carnegie Mellon University, Howard University, Pennsylvania State University and, Syracuse University at Temple University’s Institute for Business and Information Technology. Syracuse University won the challenge and the University of New Haven team placed among the top finalists.

“Our students are publishing more than students at universities that have millions more dollars in funding.”Ibrahim (Abe) Baggili

Each team had six hours to sift through a fictitious company’s enormous data files, identify the cyber attack, where it came from, the damage it caused and how they would solve the problem. The team presented their findings and recommendations to industry panelists. Because the teams were not given the same hardware, the “enormous amount of data they were given” it was too much for their laptop to handle, Baggili said.

“For three hours our students had to find unique ways of solving the problem,” he said. “One of the competition mentors said after that they couldn’t believe our students had pulled it off. I was really proud of what they did. They’re definitely problem solvers.”

Casey pointed out, “The most difficult part was combining data and evidence from multiple sources – disk, RAM and network. I am very impressed with how quickly we were able to piece together the story under pressure. If the competition was judged solely on technical proficiency, I have no doubt we would have won.”

It was one of a number of big wins for the team in national challenges over the last two years. In 2016, Tagliatela College of Engineering students placed third among 184 teams from universities around the world in the international Black T-shirt Cyber Forensics Challenge, a joint academic and industry contest with 1,012 contestants from 42 countries and 45 states.

Becoming one of the top cyber analyst teams in the country has a lot to do with grit, resilience, and knowing exactly where their teammates’ strengths lie, said team members. It is a year-long quest to hone their talents, skills and insights through coursework and extensive and complex research. “Our students are publishing more than students at universities that have millions more dollars in funding,” Baggili said.

"The Cyber Forensics Lab – it’s our office. We’re right there working with the students; they’re learning and we are.”Ibrahim (Abe) Baggili

From the minute students enter the program, Baggili and Frank Breitinger, assistant professor of computer science, let students know “You have to have a strong work ethic, ask questions, work independently and you have to be able to be part of a team,” Baggili said. “If you do that level of work, you might discover a security issue in an app that affects a billion people worldwide. Once our students experience success, they want to work that hard.”

“We don’t accept anything but excellence,” Baggili said. “As faculty members we push ourselves. The Cyber Forensics Lab – it’s our office. We’re right there working with the students; they’re learning and we are.”

Challenges are built into courses. In the Digital Forensics course, in place of a final exam, there’s a national challenge. Students receive a copy of a hard drive, the network traffic, a computer memory and have to determine how the system was penetrated and what was stolen.

All that work is worth it, Grannis said. He said he relishes the opportunity to compete against top programs across the country. “The best part of the competition was after it concluded,” he said. “We were approached by many of the people representing the competition sponsors. These people, including the chief technical officer of cybersecurity at NBC Universal, handed out their business cards and told us that they were very impressed by our team.”