Last weekend, North­eastern stu­dents com­peted against industry pro­fes­sionals and peers from 11 other schools in the North­east Regional Col­le­giate Cyber Defense Com­pe­ti­tion. Cour­tesy photo.

A new IT team takes over com­puting at an e-​​commerce firm and starts assessing the secu­rity of its shabby net­work. In one hour, the net­work will be breached by hackers looking for pri­vate data.

This real­istic com­puting chal­lenge was played out over the weekend at the ninth annual North­east Regional Col­le­giate Cyber Defense Com­pe­ti­tion at the EMC Training Center in Franklin, Mass. Northeastern’s Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence hosted the event, which was spon­sored in part by Dell, Deloitte and Microsoft.

Stu­dents were given an imper­fect envi­ron­ment and they had to strengthen it and harden it, which is a major task,” said com­pe­ti­tion orga­nizer Themis Papa­george, the director of Northeastern’s infor­ma­tion assur­ance grad­uate pro­gram. “This is exactly the kind of chal­lenge they will face in a real-​​world envi­ron­ment, so they had to take what they had learned in the class­room and apply it to the com­pe­ti­tion very quickly.”

More than 100 under­grad­uate and grad­uate stu­dents from a dozen schools — including North­eastern, Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, Worcester Poly­technic Insti­tute and Rochester Insti­tute of Tech­nology — attended the event, which Papa­george said was the largest national or regional cyberde­fense com­pe­ti­tion ever held.

The most chal­lenging of more than two dozen com­pe­ti­tion tasks required stu­dents to use their skills to thwart attacks from real-​​world cyberde­fense experts.

Sud­denly you have a real pen­e­tra­tion test, with experts from industry attacking your com­puters in a very aggres­sive way,” Papa­george explained. “You have to deal with being under attack as you fight off your assailants and con­tinue to do your work and strengthen your network.”

The North­eastern squad did not end up with one of the top three scores at the end of the weekend, but Papa­george said the team learned a number of impor­tant lessons than could be applied in future competitions.

That learning is invalu­able,” he said. “You’re working with and talking to people who do this for a living. They’re com­peting with the best of the best here.”