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Students hacked their way into national competition

At USF, computer hacking has become a game.

For the first time, USF’s Whitehatters Computer Security Club (WCSC) has qualified for the finals of the Cyber Security Awareness Week (CSAW) event at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, where they will hack into opponents’ computers for the chance at winning a cash prize Friday.

“Since the event has been going on for eight years now, many schools have gone multiple years and their teams are more familiar with the format. But we are going to try as hard as we can,” said John Amirrezvani, a junior majoring in information technology.

At the beginning of the month, about 20 members worked for 48 hours on seven projects to qualify for the CSAW competition. For one project, the organization was given a fake website to hack without using the proper username and password.

The rankings were decided by whether teams could hack into the website and pass the projects. USF landed in eighth place, among the top 10 schools this year.

Amirrezvani is one of the members who helped WCSC qualify for the finals.

“We were all really happy to qualify. Some of us worked really hard on (qualifying),” he said. “I am definitely looking forward to going to New York and competing.”

However, only four of the club’s members, who were selected by first priority based on their experience, can compete when the event begins in New York City.

“These students will only have six-to-eight hours, a much shorter timeframe,” Amirrezvani said.

“We chose (upperclassmen) because of their experience over freshman and council members who have been part of the club for at least two years,” said Whitehatters President Alexander Taylor, a senior majoring in computer engineering.

Other students chosen were Travis Behr, a senior majoring in computer science and engineering, Jordi Lucero, a junior majoring in engineering;, and Samuel Williams, a senior majoring in mathematics.

“The tools we use are not taught in classes, and (competing) is one of the only ways to train cyber security,” Taylor said.

The event is a great way to showcase the importance of cyber security, he said.

The team will compete against nine other teams that qualified in an event called Capture the Flag. Each team has a server and a computer from which they will work. The teams steal files from other competitors by hacking into their servers, and the winner is the one who hacks the most files. At the same time, the teams must secure their server and prevent others from hacking their systems.

First place wins $500, second $250 and third $100.

This year, many companies will try to recruit competitors and hire these knowledgeable students, said Nasir Memon.

The Polytechnical Institute will provide participating schools with a $1,000 travel voucher to cover hotel, meal and travel expenses.

WCSC, which was established in 2005, is a student organization that allows all majors to join.

It consists of about 60 actively involved members who participate in learning through presentations, guest speakers and competitions.

“The CSAW has created a gathering for students who are passionate about cyber security who are able to make friendships with other people and grow,” Memon said, professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and director of the Information Systems and Internet Security (ISIS) laboratory at NYU-Polytechnical.

USF placed eighth the first time it qualified for CSAW in 2008 but was unable to attend because it could not secure the necessary funds.

About two weeks ago, WCSC placed first in a security gathering in Miami called Hacker Halted Conference 2010 that had it trying to hack into websites before other teams, which served as preparation for the New York event, Taylor said.

“I definitely hope to learn a lot more (from the competition),” Amirrezvani said. “The more exposure you get to cyber security, the more quickly you learn about it.”