Duke’s Cyber Devils Triumph in the National Cyber League
Group of five students in Duke’s Master’s of Engineering in Cybersecurity placed in the top 10% of a prestigious nationwide competition
In Duke University’s cyber lounge, a group of MEng Cybersecurity students, united by their shared program and cohort, huddled around their screens with each keystroke bringing them closer to victory in the National Cyber League (NCL) Competition.
The NCL competition is a prestigious event in the cybersecurity community, which provides students with a platform to immerse themselves in real-world cyber environments and solve real-world cybersecurity challenges.
For Chern Heng Tan, Cameron Sotoodeh, Jung Baek, Omar Al Mulhem and Vaibhav Zaveri, the Cyber Devils, the weekend-long NCL competition, supported by organizations like Crowdstrike and Cipher Tech Solutions, offered a thrilling immersion into cybersecurity.
Spanning nine different categories such as open-source intelligence, log analysis and cryptography, participants had the flexibility to tackle challenges in any section they chose. Armed with diverse information, including coordinates, malicious code, and network traffic capture files (PCAP files), the team delved into real-world scenarios, honing their problem-solving abilities and technical expertise.
The competition’s structure, encompassing both individual and team components, provided participants with a dynamic platform to demonstrate their abilities. Preparation included practice sessions in the cyber gymnasium, allowing participants to reinforce their cybersecurity knowledge.
Additionally, professors served as mentors, offering guidance to strengthen weaknesses and resolve uncertainties. Despite facing hurdles, the Cyber Devils forged ahead with collaborative effort and unwavering determination.
One of the toughest challenges faced by the team occurred in the password-cracking section, where they encountered the daunting task of revealing passwords hidden within provided hashes.
Despite running multiple wordlists, the passwords remained elusive. Undeterred, the team crafted their own dictionary, carefully selecting potential words based on a comprehensive range of sources.
In the real world, cracking passwords requires a multitude of guesses and often involves exploiting personal information. Zaveri explains, “We compiled our dictionary using various sources, including names, phone numbers, addresses, and dates of birth—information readily available online.”
This mirrors tactics used by cyber attackers, who construct targeted wordlists using scraped data. Despite the challenges, the team’s perseverance paid off.
Through their comprehensive dictionary approach, they successfully deciphered the passwords, showcasing their ingenuity and resourcefulness in tackling complex cybersecurity challenges. This strategic maneuver underscores the team’s ability to adapt and innovate in high-pressure scenarios, essential traits in the cybersecurity landscape.
When the competition came to an end, the Cyber Devils secured a notable position in the NCL rankings. Individual participants, including Chern Heng Tan and Vaibhav Zaveri, demonstrated exceptional proficiency and determination throughout the competition, earning top percentiles and prestigious digital medals.
Out of 521 schools nationwide, Duke ranked an impressive 40th, firmly placing itself in the top 10%. In the Eastern colleges category, Duke soared to 17th place, further solidifying its reputation as a hub of cybersecurity education and innovation.
The victory for the Cyber Devils in the NCL shines as a beacon of innovation, collaboration and unyielding determination. As they continue to push the boundaries of possibility, one thing remains certain: the Cyber Devils are destined for greatness in the ever-expanding domain of cybersecurity.
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