When Dr. Rick Forno came to UMBC in the fall of 2010, he came with a plan: a weekend competition at UMBC for students interested in cybersecurity. But, what was originally conceived as a casual Saturday afternoon event, evolved into the Maryland Cyber Challenge and Conference (MDC3), a state-wide competition that promises generous scholarships for participating students and, though only in its first year, is already being endorsed by an impressive slew of supporters including President Hrabowski and Governor Martin O’Malley.

Just in time for National Cyber Security Awareness Month, the goal of MDC3 is to “celebrate Cybersecurity in Maryland,” says Dr. Forno, co-chair of the event and the Graduate Program Director, Cybersecurity at UMBC. MDC3 started as a partnership between the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) and UMBC, and has now expanded to include the National Cyber Security Alliance, Tech Council of Maryland, and the Maryland Department of Business & Economic Development. When SAIC suggested using CyberNEXS–their cyber training, certification, and exercise model—to simulate compromised computers for students to analyze, MDC3 was born.  

The competition is made up of three rounds, where teams are confronted with a cybersecurity threat or issue that needs to be resolved. Teams fall within three division: High School, College, and Professionals, and are made up of roughly six members. When MDC3’s qualifier rounds kicked off in early September, an impressive 53 teams throughout the state had joined the competition; roughly 15 per division.

The first round presented teams with virtual machines that were plagued by vulnerabilities. Team members were given the task to find and fix as many problems as they could within the given time limit. Round two, which took place on October 1st, was forensics based. Each team was given a compromised computer hard drive that they had to diagnose and analyze to determine what malicious activity had happened and how.

The final round of the competition will be held at the Baltimore Convention Center on October 21st and 22nd. There are currently 24 teams in the competition, 8 per division. The finals will consist of a computer defense exercise for high school students who must defend their systems against active attacks, while college and professional teams will participate in a penetration testing and forensics-oriented event where they examine, attack, and compromise assorted target systems in the exercise environment.  Included in those 24 finalists is UMBC’s own Cyber Defense Team, the Cyberdawgs.

“I really enjoy going to competitions, it gets me hyped and excited,” says Marc Warfield, Cyberdawgs president, a Junior pursuing his B.S. in Information Systems. “Overall I’m happy that we made it to the finals so that we can get more focus and hopefully members.”

In addition to the valuable experience, the competition boasts impressive scholarship awards for student winners courtesy of the National Security Agency (NSA). Competing High School and College students can potentially win $5,000 per person per team (1st place) or $2,000 per person per team (2nd place). Dr. Forno credits these generous sums to Caroline Baker, Director of Corporate Relations at UMBC, and the OIA group for their tenacious negotiations with NSA to make these scholarships possible.

The MDC3 finals are tied in with a two-day conference. Panels and lectures will feature topics like cloud computing, careers in cybersecurity, cybersecurity education, and the Cyber Maryland Initiative. The conference features experts in the field including Chris Inglis, Deputy Director of the NSA, Larry Clinton, President of the Internet Security Alliance, and Ira Winkler author of Spies Among Us.

The already explosive success of MDC3 suggests that chances are high for it to develop into an annual staple, which is Dr. Forno’s goal. “The whole idea behind this event was to get people excited and interested and to get people to pursue careers in cybersecurity because there is such a need for it now and going forward,” says Dr. Forno. “It also demonstrates UMBC’s entrepreneurial commitment to fostering cybersecurity and STEM education for Maryland’s current and future workforce.”

Excitement is definitely the response conveyed by teams like the Cyberdawgs. “It was a good learning experience, which is the best thing about these competitions,” says Warfield of the competition so far. But winning, of course, hasn’t been totally ignored. “I’m not going to promise anything,” says Warfield, “but I promise that we are going to try our best and hopefully bring home the championship to UMBC.”

Visit www. mdc3.org for more information and to register for the conference.