Challenge prompts importance of cyber-security

The National Cyber Analyst Challenge has students prepare for and defend against a simulated cyber attack.

Ed Ferrara believes the depicted world of cybercrime and hacking is a bit exaggerated in the 2015 film “Blackhat,” which hit theaters Jan. 16 and stars Chris Hemsworth, among others.

“Very few hackers look like Thor,” said Ferrara, an adjunct professor of data analytics for the master of science in information technology auditing and cyber-security program. “He was basically running around punching people and shooting them. I don’t know of any hackers who live that way.”

He’s quick to note that there are very real and tense situations for cyber-security professionals when it comes to defending confidential data, like with last year’s hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment related to the film “The Interview.”

This is what a team of five master’s students at Temple, coached by Ferrara, are preparing for in the first National Cyber Analyst Challenge hosted by Lockheed Martin and Temple’s Institute for Business and Information Technology.

The three-phase competition among 12 schools is already underway, and if Temple is able to make it to the finals, the team will have to fend off a cyberattack in a real-time practical challenge, held at the Lockheed Martin Global Vision Center in Virginia sometime in October. The winning team will be awarded $25,000.

“It’s a simulated real breach,” Ferrara said. “If you’re in a real breach, time is not your friend because you’re losing data, you’re losing control of systems, you’re potentially losing control of your company.”

Laurel Miller, director of the IBIT and associate professor in the management information systems department, explained that the challenge and the partnership with Lockheed Martin stemmed from a realization that there was not enough student talent in cyber-related fields.

“That’s one of their main objectives for this challenge, is that they are desperately in need of cybersecurity individuals that have that type of background,” Miller said.

Munir Mandviwalla, chair of the MIS department and executive director of the IBIT, said this specific challenge is different from most because of its focus on cyber-analytical skills, which are especially valued by cybersecurity companies today.

“What is lacking is this analyst orientation, people who can look at data in real-time, in terms of log files or incidents and then make good judgment calls—is this actually a threat or not?” Mandviwalla said. “So this particular challenge is really designed to promote, recognize and identify individuals as well as encourage universities to produce individuals who have that analyst orientation.”

The first phase of the challenge, which involved investigative research into the potential threats to a set of data, concluded this past Thursday when the teams submitted their findings in a presentation. Results on the phase are expected this Thursday. As for the second and third phases, Ferrara only knows that they will get progressively more difficult and unpredictable.

The team is made up of five students who are all part of the ITACS program: Kerwing Hy, Jose Gomez, Nick Nguyen, Jeta Gjana and Ibtissam Bazzine. With each member’s specific skills, Ferrara said it was gratifying for him to see each of them fill their respective roles for what he calls a “team sport.”

“Most of these investigations of these types are done in teams and you need a variety of skills—communication skills, writing skills, analytic skills, technology skills—to do these kinds of investigations,” he said.

Hy, who’s only had experience with actuarial science at the Fox School of Business, said he’s glad that this challenge is giving him hands-on experience in cyber security, which was unknown to him until now.

“I think this National Cyber Analyst Challenge is a great way for me to, not even be fully immersed, but to get my feet wet up to this point,” Hy said. “I feel a lot better being in this field with this competition under my belt.”

Albert Hong can be reached at or 215.204.7416.

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