CSAIL, University of Cambridge team up for “Cambridge 2 Cambridge” cybersecurity hackathon

Students competed in challenges such as lock-picking and password-breaking as part of the 24-hour hackathon.
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Students competed in challenges such as lock-picking and password-breaking as part of the 24-hour hackathon.

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With cyber-attacks and data privacy becoming increasingly important global concerns, many cybersecurity experts have called for more international collaboration in developing technologies to help us protect our data and systems.

To that end, this past weekend students from MIT’s Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the University of Cambridge collaborated in a special multi-day competition at MIT dubbed “Cambridge 2 Cambridge” (C2C).

First announced by President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron last year, the event on Friday and Saturday was part of a series of US/UK initiatives aimed at harnessing the two nations’ collective brainpower to combat global cyber-attacks.

The competition featured a 24-hour “Capture the Flag”-style hackathon with blended student teams from CSAIL and Cambridge, as well as a series of other mini-challenges that include lock-picking, password-cracking and code-breaking. Winning teams were awarded cash prizes courtesy of Microsoft.

“It was exciting to partner with the University of Cambridge on this initiative, which we hope will be the first of many efforts to foster more collaborative cybersecurity work,” says Howard Shrobe, the CSAIL principal research scientist who heads up the lab’s Cybersecurity@CSAIL initiative. “We think it’s vital to create opportunities for students to actively apply their knowledge to real-world problems, and C2C enables just those sorts of hands-on experiences.”

Hackathon participants developed attacks and defenses for ongoing challenges in cybersecurity. They competed in a graduated set of exercises touching on such topics as web security, reverse engineering, cryptography, binary exploitation and forensics.

"People are becoming more aware of what can happen to their data online," says participant Cecilia Testart, a first year PhD student. "The sorts of tasks we did today, like accessing data remotely, are critical because if more of these devices are connected, hacking can happen on a larger scale."

The $5,000 "Top Hacker" prize was awarded to MIT student Julian Fuchs. The $15,000 "Top Hacking Team" prize was awarded to MIT students Cheng Chen and Fuchs, alongside Cambridge University students Alex Dalgleish and Gabor Szarka.

"The response from the students has been enthusiastic: they loved the hands-on security challenges," says Frank Stajano, Head of the Academic Centre of Excellence in Cyber Security Research at the University of Cambridge. "Some of our C2C training material will become part of next year's computer science curriculum. We very much look forward to working with MIT on cybersecurity again and in the meantime we'll be hosting a smaller cybersecurity challenge in Cambridge next month for the other UK centres of excellence."

C2C was supported by Microsoft, BT, Facebook and ForAllSecure, as well as Rapid7, ThreatStream, Cisco Systems, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Fresh Cognate and Cybersecurity@CSAIL members Akamai, BAE Systems, BBVA, Boeing, BP, Raytheon and Visa.

“We are proud to be supporting this event and with it raising the visibility of security in today’s world, says Mark Hughes, CEO for BT Security. “Events like this help nurture new security talent, who will help governments and organizations around the world stay secure and prosper.”