The Collegiate Cybersecurity Competition Team at the University of Central Florida added another national title to its winning record when it achieved the highest score among 22 colleges and universities competing in a new cyber competition sponsored by the National Security Agency.

The inaugural NSA cybersecurity exercise for institutions designated as NSA Centers of Academic Excellence (NCAE-C) in Cybersecurity — held virtually April 11-13 — tested students’ skills and knowledge in five different areas of cybersecurity expertise.

The contest, called the 2022 CAE-NCX, is an advanced-level competition. As a NCAE-C institution, UCF was one of 375 designated institutions eligible to compete in the three-day event.

Ten UCF students, many of whom are members of UCF’s highly-decorated Cybersecurity Competition Team, competed in five modules — Cryptography, Malware Analysis, Policy, Secure Software Development, and Cyber Combat Exercise — winning the Cryptography, Policy and the Cyber Combat Exercise modules. The Cyber Combat Exercise was an eight-hour competition that counted for 40% of UCF’s overall score.

Team Coach Tom Nedorost, a faculty member of the UCF College of Engineering and Computer Science, strategically assembled each module’s four-member team based on students’ individual strengths and skills, with some students competing in multiple modules.

2022 CAE-NCX modules and UCF student competitors were:

  • Module 1: Cryptography (UCF First Place) 
    Cameron Whitehead (captain), digital forensics master’s student; Caitlin Whitehead, digital forensics master’s student; James Geist ’87, doctoral computer science student; Matthew McKeever, senior computer science student
  • Module 2:  Malware Analysis
    Geist (captain); Cameron Whitehead; Caitlin Whitehead; Christopher Fischer, senior computer science student
  • Module 3:  Policy (UCF First Place)
    Caitlin Whitehead (captain); Cameron Whitehead; Daniella Bader, senior international and global studies student; Paul “PJ” Tice, senior political science and psychology student
  • Module 4:  Secure Software Development 
    Jeffrey DiVincent (captain), junior computer science student; Jacob Franz, junior computer science student; Tyler Hostler-Mathis, junior computer science student; Geist
  • Module 5:  Cyber Combat Exercise (UCF First Place) 
    Fischer (captain); DiVincent; Cameron Whitehead; McKeever

“I knew UCF’s team had all the technical skills necessary to success in the CAE-NCX,” Nedorost says. “I was most concerned about the Policy module, which required extensive knowledge of public policy, law and government bureaucracy, along with professional writing and the presentation skills expected of television news anchor. In collaboration with UCF’s Intelligence and National Security Center of Academic Excellence at UCF, we assembled an interdisciplinary team for the Policy module which resulted in a win.”

Nedorost credits Bruce Caulkins ’86 ’95MS ’05PhD, director, UCF’s Modeling and Simulation of Behavioral Cybersecurity program, for mentoring the Policy module team.

Cameron Whitehead, who competed in four of the five modules, attributed UCF’s module victories to how well his teammates quickly adapted to different challenges and communicated strategies effectively.

“One personal highlight was in the Cyber Combat module,” Whitehead says. “It required us to attack more than 100 different computers that were being defended by other university teams as well as to defend our own machines from all the other teams. This required us to pivot from focusing on small targeted attacks to finding techniques to quickly attack dozens of computers at once. By the end of the module, UCF had hacked a majority of the machines being defended by others, and in many cases, had entirely taken control of those machines from their original owners.”

Competitions like these give students real-world training in safeguarding the nation’s critical infrastructure from cyberattacks that are growing more frequent, damaging and costly. To help meet the demand for cybersecurity professionals now and in the future, UCF launched a new master’s degree in cyber security and privacy last year.

Since 2013, UCF Collegiate Cybersecurity Competition Team has consistently won or placed in the top-three in national cyber competitions that include the Department of Energy’s CyberForce Competition (UCF won in 2021 and 2018), and Raytheon’s National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (UCF won in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2021).

UCF students from any major can learn more about the multi-faceted field of cybersecurity through Hack@UCF, a robust student organization at UCF with 200+ members who meet regularly to explore cybersecurity and defense topics and prepare for competitions.

UCF will defend its national title in the 2022 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in San Antonio April 21-23.