ECU cybersecurity team finishes in top 20 of the nation

From left, East Carolina University students Gabe Pierre, Harrison Thaxton, Hannah Graves, Nick Hempenius, Dylan Kerkhoff, Reed Williams and Alex Hardt pose for a photo in ECU’s new cybersecurity lab. (Photo by Ken Buday)

A group of seven East Carolina University students finished 14th out of 781 teams in the National Cyber League (NCL) Team Game cybersecurity contest.

The students — Gabe Pierre, Harrison Thaxton, Hannah Graves, Nick Hempenius, Dylan Kerkhoff, Reed Williams and Alex Hardt — are part of the information and computer technology program in the Department of Technology Systems, which is part of the College of Engineering and Technology.

“That’s really good,” Hardt, who serves as the team captain, said of the finish. “I think it comes down to having dedicated players that all have different areas of specialties. I think I’m probably one of the least-skilled on the team, but it’s the conglomerate of people all with different skillsets coming together. All I do is provide a little direction.”

The team totaled 2,680 points out of a possible 3,000 in the puzzle-based, capture the flag competition. The three-day, online event challenged students in password cracking, open source intelligence, traffic analysis, wireless and web application security, and cryptography, among others.

Competitors demonstrated their abilities to identify hackers from forensic data, to break into vulnerable websites and to recover from ransomware attacks.

Hempenius said that perhaps the most challenging part of the competition involved torrent files, which are a sort of index of data.

“What made it difficult is torrent data isn’t downloaded in order. It’s like a puzzle. It’s over 8,000 pieces, and each piece is raw data,” Hempenius said. “We had to go through there and read all the data, and we had to write a script to put the file back together. It’s like a puzzle but all the edges are smooth. You have to figure out what each piece’s sequence is, and you have to take that data and put it back together.”

The NCL event is designed to help competitors prepare for cybersecurity challenges they will likely face in the workforce. It takes place twice per year. The ECU team placed 24th out of more than 500 teams in the spring event.

Next up for the team is the National Collegiate Cyber Defense competition scheduled in April.

– By Ken Buday, University Communications