A team of Howard County high school seniors took home honors lost week in a competition geared toward educating students about cybersecurity and offering practical experience when it comes to defending computers from hackers.
The six students, five from Centennial High School and one from Reservoir High School, placed second at the Maryland Cyber Challenge and Competition, held at the Baltimore Convention Center Oct. 16 and 17. The competition was sponsored by the Science Applications International Corp., the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the National Cyber Security Alliance.
Together, Centennial seniors Reuven Rosenthal, Huang Xue, Franz Payer, Aneesh Agrawal and Nathaniel Pettipaw, and Reservoir senior Eric Forte make up team gh0stsec.
The name gh0stsec doesn't have a real meaning, said Payer, the team captain.
"We couldn't think of a name," he said. "We just started choosing random terms, putting them together."
It's the second time gh0stsec has appeared at the competition, which is nicknamed MDC3. Last year, at the first MDC3, the county team competed, but did not place.
This year, however, the team was beaten only by a team from Poolesville High School, a Montgomery County magnet school for science, technology and math. For their efforts, each gh0stsec team member was awarded a $2,000 scholarship from the National Security Agency.
"Poolesville has their own cybersecurity program, so it's not really a level playing field," Payer said. "We're just people learning by ourselves, with whatever resources we can find online."
Payer said he would like to see Howard County offer more in the way of cybersecurity training. Even with a sponsor in Centennial science teacher Michelle Bagley, the team now is just six students meeting after school, learning as they go.
At the competition, the team went up against seven other high school teams, as they tried to protect a computer — which they logged onto remotely — from a professional SAIC team trying to hack into the system.
"We were trying to prevent the hackers from breaking into our machine and kicking us offline, while trying to fix the problems that were allowing them to do that," Forte said.
The teams were scored on points based on their ability to protect their system.
The competition has real-life applications, Forte said, since people typically have numerous online accounts, and more and more of life is becoming digital.
"The best example is online banking," he said. "There's communication going on between you and your bank online, and the bank has to make sure that communication is secure as it can be. If it's not, it can be monitored, watched and it's one of the easiest ways for people to steal your identity."
Computer science and cybersecurity, Payer said, are like puzzles to him; typing something on a keyboard and making something happen is an aspect he finds fascinating.
"(With cybersecurity), it's about trying to find problems on a website, a problem with something someone produced, and it's like a puzzle," he said. "You have to find the one thing that makes it break."
Payer said that while more people are aware of cyber crime now, they still seem to think it can only happen to "big companies, not an issue to an everyday Internet user.
"If a company is attacked, it affects anyone who has an account with that company," he said.
Professional and college teams also participated in the MDC3 finals, as well as two teams from Howard County's Applications and Research Lab, neither of which placed.
Forte said cybersecurity, because it is relatively new compared to other, more traditional forms of security, has a "great need" for qualified people to protect the computer systems used by both the government and private sectors.
"We need more people who understand it, who have grown up with computers and the Internet, and who understand how the digital world works," he said.
"This is how we live our lives now."