The Oregon State University Security Club has saved the day. Again.
The club has scored well in recent years in Department of Energy CyberForce competitions, placing third nationally after winning the regional competition for the second consecutive year.
Now the group has added a victory in the Codebreaker Challenge, run by the National Security Agency. OSU beat out more than 370 teams for the Codebreaker win. Georgia Tech, the University of North Georgia, the New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology and the University of Tulsa rounded out the top five.
The competitions required vastly different skills. The CyberForce event takes place at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, with a six-member contingent traveling to represent OSU.
The NSA event was a virtual one, with team members working from their home bases and bringing in as many members as they have to add expertise to the challenge.
The six-person core for OSU is Zander Work, a sophomore computer science major from Lake Oswego; Zach Rogers. a senior computer science major from Hillsboro; Travis Whitehead, a senior computer science major from West Linn; Khuong Luu, a senior computer science major from Portland who came to the United States from Vietnam in 2015 and who proudly describes himself as an immigrant seeking American citizenship; Hadi Rahal-Arabi, a computer science graduate student from Hillsboro; and Curtis Warrick, a senior computer science major from the Coos County town of Powers.
The team’s adviser is Yeongjin Jang, OSU assistant professor of computer science. The club has a roster of more than 100 members but usually only about 30 are active at any one time. The club formed in 2015, then had a bit of a dormant period before it was revived in 2017 when Jang joined the university.
The Gazette-Times sat down with club members Friday and we were immediately confronted by the language barrier. There is a rather precise language tied to the schoolwork and cybersecurity work that the students engage in. In addition, they mainly hang out with other computer science students and seldom see the need to explain themselves to laypeople.
Wood noted that when he discusses his cybersecurity work with his parents the conversation usually goes like this: “It’s cool, it’s highly technical and I can make some money at it when I graduate.”
“I really like the investigative aspect ... the puzzle of it,” said Warrick of the work. “We try to figure out the underlying structure and how things work. It’s super-interesting to me how folks will try to break into your stuff.”
Sometimes, while working under terrific deadline pressure. During the competitions at Richland, other teams might be scurrying through your work area trying to disrupt your concentrations or steal code or passwords.
“Look alive” was the mantra club members used when they sensed an incursion, Rogers noted.
Work said that one of the things that makes the OSU team so competitive is that members have such a wide range of skills.
“Everyone definitely plays an important role on the team,” he said. “If everyone didn’t bring different skills to what we are doing we wouldn’t have the same results.”
Challenge organizers were quite happy to inject a new problem or variable just when the OSU team was ready to nail down its solution. Helping out was the research club members could do beforehand that sometimes gave them clues on what sort of challenges they might face in a competition.
“You definitely learn how to use Google,” Warrick said. "The joke is that a degree in computer science is really a degree in Google searching.”
“The more that you learn about security,” Whitehead said, “and the more you can figure out how they are doing something … that‘s really cool.”
Not surprisingly, all the club members interviewed Friday said they hope to work in cybersecurity, with the demand high for codebreakers such as the OSU team, both from private industry and from government agencies. Especially in these times of international hacking and data breaches.
“They are very interested in pursuing top talent,” Rogers said.
“I’m hoping one of these guys will hire me,” joked Rahal-Arabi.
Whereupon Work fired up a fake cyberthreat map as a backdrop and the team lined up for its closeup.