Cadet cyber team competes on world stage

From left: Cadet 2nd Class Josh Christman, Cadet 1st Class Chris Shields, Cadet 2nd Class Nathan Hart and Cadet 1st Class Jordan Keefer discuss buffer overflow exploits during a cyber competition team meeting in the Air Force Academy's Cyberwarfare Lab Oct. 3, 2011. The team placed third out of 45 U.S. undergraduate teams in a competition hosted by the New York University Polytechnic Institute Sept. 23-25. Keefer is the team's cadet in charge. (U.S. Air Force photo/Don Branum)

From left: Cadet 2nd Class Josh Christman, Cadet 1st Class Chris Shields, Cadet 2nd Class Nathan Hart and Cadet 1st Class Jordan Keefer discuss buffer overflow exploits during a cyber competition team meeting in the Air Force Academy's Cyberwarfare Lab Oct. 3, 2011. The team placed third out of 45 U.S. undergraduate teams in a competition hosted by the New York University Polytechnic Institute Sept. 23-25. Keefer is the team's cadet in charge. (U.S. Air Force photo/Don Branum)

Clockwise from right: Cadet 2nd Class Josh Christman, Cadet 1st Class Chris Shields, Cadet 2nd Class Nathan Hart and Cadet 1st Class Jordan Keefer discuss how to conduct a string format attack during a cyber competition team meeting in the Air Force Academy's Cyberwarfare Lab Oct. 3, 2011. String format vulnerabilities exist in some software applications written using the C++ programming language and can allow attackers to gain administrative rights on remote systems. Keefer is the team's cadet in charge. (U.S. Air Force photo/Don Branum)

Clockwise from right: Cadet 2nd Class Josh Christman, Cadet 1st Class Chris Shields, Cadet 2nd Class Nathan Hart and Cadet 1st Class Jordan Keefer discuss how to conduct a string format attack during a cyber competition team meeting in the Air Force Academy's Cyberwarfare Lab Oct. 3, 2011. String format vulnerabilities exist in some software applications written using the C++ programming language and can allow attackers to gain administrative rights on remote systems. Keefer is the team's cadet in charge. (U.S. Air Force photo/Don Branum)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- A team of eight cadets placed third among 45 U.S. undergraduate schools in the qualifying round of an online capture-the-flag competition Sept. 23-25 hosted by the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, making the team eligible for the finals in New York City next month.

While "capture the flag" might evoke images of paintball or first-person shooter video games, this competition involved breaking computer security and digging up "key" information on contest judges, explained Dr. Martin Carlisle, professor and deputy department head of academics for the Computer Science Department here.

The team -- Cadets 1st Class Jordan Keefer, Chris Shields and Geoff Pamerleau, Cadets 2nd Class Josh Christman, Nathan Hart, Luke Jones and Michael Winstead and Cadet 3rd Class Anthony Canino -- tied for 15th overall among competitors that included undergraduate, graduate and industry professional teams.

"Most teams compete against undergraduates," Carlisle said. "We've competed against professionals and held our own." Other names in the NYU contest included Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Milan in Italy, while industry professionals included teams from the United States, England and France.

The NYU competition ran for 48 straight hours, making it a test of endurance as well as smarts. Cadets got about six hours of sleep, on average, said Hart, a native of Champlain, Minn.

"We ran on a lot of Mountain Dew and Hot Pockets," Christman added.

It's not the first such contest for the team, which also competed in the Luxembourg-based Hack.lu Cyber Capture the Flag contest Sept. 19-20, an open capture-the-flag competition at DEFCON 19 in Las Vegas in August and the San Antonio-based National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in April.

Dean of the Faculty Brig. Gen. Dana Born named the cyber competition team one of the "Dean's Teams" in May, making it the third such team along with the forensics and mock-trial teams. That gives the cadets dedicated time -- an invaluable resource -- in the cyberwarfare lab Mondays through Thursdays from 3:30 to 5 p.m., Carlisle said.

Many of the cadets on the cyber competition team are also affiliated with the Academy's cyberwarfare club, which predates the team by about a year. Christman, who started competing in December, said the team has learned a great deal through competitions -- particularly ones like DEFCON 19 that force them to adapt quickly.

"It was an open competition, and the organizers didn't give us any info beforehand," Christman said. "When we got there and set up, everything was running on IPv6," a newer version of Internet Protocol that doesn't play well with IPv4, the existing version. "We wouldn't have known what we had to learn if not for the competition."

Cadets' proficiency will translate well into Air Force cyberwarfare efforts after cadets graduate, said Keefer, the cadet in charge of the cyber competition team and a native of Manheim, Pa.

"It all springboards," said Keefer, who found out Monday that he will enter a cyberwarfare-related Air Force specialty after he graduates. "The cyber competition team builds on what I've learned as a computer science major, and this serves as a basis for what I'll learn in my career field."

And it's impossible to overstate the importance of that expertise, said Lt. Col. David Bibighaus, an assistant professor for the Computer Science Department.

"Cyberwarfare is inexpensive, and that's what makes it so dangerous," Bibighaus said. "Not everyone can field a fifth-generation fighter" like the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter or the F-22A Raptor, "but anyone can stand up a world-class cyberwarfare unit."

Four of the cadets will travel to New York City Nov. 11 to participate in the 24-hour long NYU Capture the Flag finals.