CyberTitan 2019: Introducing STEM Students to Cybersecurity

CyberTitan is Canada’s answer to CyberPatriot in the United States. It’s a competition that has teams from high schools across the country compete as blue teams to defend against simulated cyberattacks. The objective is to get kids interested in cybersecurity. The Canadian Security Establishment, the Department of National Defense, and the Canadian Armed Forces collaborate with ICTC to make CyberTitan a success. The event is managed by ICTC, the Information and Communications Technology Council, a Canadian federal government organization.

Representatives from the Department of National Defense, and the Canadian Armed Forces act as the red teams that the blue teams of high school students have to defend against. The winning team is the blue team that defends the most successfully. Nearly 200 teams from high schools all across Canada started competing in November, and the finals in May 2019 involve the top ten teams. KPMG and IBM sponsor CyberTitan with various resources in order to help make everything happen.

Ian Thornton-Trump, Chief Technical Officer of Octopi Managed Services, is a friend of mine. He invited me to travel to Ottawa, the capital of Canada, to visit the second national CyberTitan competition finals on May 14.

Namir Anani, President and CEO of ICTC, made a speech to kickoff the finals event:

“We conceptualized and developed this program (CyberTitan) for two reasons. One is that we want to get STEM students into the cybersecurity field and get them to engage in STEM areas. We want them to figure out what the jobs of the future are, and how can we supply them to meet that. We have estimated that in the next few years there will be 40,000 to 50,000 new jobs in cybersecurity (in Canada) to be filled. When we look globally, cybersecurity costs $6 billion in general, so whatever you’re doing today is actually the real deal in terms of protecting assets and infrastructure.”

Brigadier-General A.R. Jayne, Director General Cyberspace from the Canadian Armed Forces, followed with his own speech:

“I wanted to welcome you all here on behalf on the Government of Canada, on behalf of the Department of National Defense, and on behalf of the Canadian Armed Forces. My daughter is a Grade Twelve student and into STEM. I asked her what I should say to you. She said, ‘Tell them a joke. What did 0 say to 1?’”

A few seconds passed. Once the audience figured out the joke, they laughed.

“I see there’s lots of talent out there in STEM and cyber. That’s important to the country. You represent the very best of it. Remember that, Canada needs you. In the public sector, in the private sector, we all need young and old cyber professionals. Protecting our information, protecting our key infrastructure, protecting our industries and systems, are more important than ever before. The demand for professionals is very, very high. All types of people who have the skills that you do are going to be required. It’s your world, it’s your reality. You’ll have to own it.”

George Darouze, Deputy Mayor of Ottawa, welcomed the competition to his city:

“I want to congratulate all of you on your hard work for making it to the finals. You are the future of innovation of cybersecurity of this country. The Mayor of Ottawa, Jim Watson, has invited me today to welcome you and to make an official statement on his behalf. This is an important competition of cyber skills and cybersecurity, and it’s my honor to proclaim CyberTitan Day in Ottawa as May 14.”

Ian Thornton-Trump also had a few words to add:

“You’re at the start of your careers. You’re part of the information security community. Today all of Canada is watching our community. We have some huge VIPs coming down. Tanya Janca’s coming up, Kim Crawley is back there. She’s a journalist, an amazing lady. [Writer’s note: Thanks Ian!] They’re all behind you here. This is the start of your careers.”

I had a chance to speak with Ian later on in the day:

How did you get involved with CyberTitan in the first place?

“This goes way back to about 2014 when a company called SEIC was heavily involved with a thing called CyberPatriot. And in Winnipeg, mad props to Sisler’s cyber academy. We’ve established a need for an opportunity to encourage folks to come into cybersecurity, as young professionals supporting STEM programs. We built a first attempt at this. And it’s hilarious because the local hacker space in Winnipeg all came with whatever kit they could find. We cobbled this together for the students. It was one foot on the banana peel and the other in the grave! But we found it was a big success and there were lots of lessons learned.

I developed the network infrastructure. I had some help from many other people. A team from Poland developed the web app. We have a great time. A lot of hard work and long telephone calls. It was a real community effort. I managed to bring the right people together to get it done.

When CyberTitan started, there were only about a handful of schools involved. That was back around 2015, but now about 200 schools competed for the top ten spots. In Canada we’re always reluctant to start something new. It takes a couple of evolutions. But we’ve had some VIPs come down and we created a bit of a buzz in the information security community. Tanya Janca has showed up to do a walkthrough. And I’m just thrilled.”

Do you have any advice for kids who want to compete next year?

“Absolutely. Get involved with your school program. Learn as much as you can, but safely. Don’t get arrested. Don’t run afoul of the law. Work in virtualized platforms that you own. All of those things are super important. I just want to say seek like-minded individuals because there are a lot of folks who know a lot of stuff about stuff that you don’t know. The only way to learn is to hang around, asking questions, and continue to participate.”

Do you think this generation of students have advantages in starting cybersecurity careers that my generation and your generation may have lacked?

“I totally do. If I could use a really nerdy example, you and I are single core or dual core processors. These kids are multi core processors.”

I spoke with Valentina Krasteva, the Coach for Multiply and Surrender from William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

How did you get involved with CyberTitan?

“By accident. Somebody sent an email from ICTC. One of the things they were promoting was CyberPatriot, which is the American version of this. After some discussion at the school, we joined.”

Do you have a vested interest in computing?

“I do. I studied computer science before I came to Canada. (These days), kids may know more about computers than their parents. I think the adults are more in danger of cyberattacks than the kids, overall. But it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot for the kids to learn.”

I also spoke with Robert Esposito, the Coach for Red Enclave from Sisler High School from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada:

Were you into computer science before you got into education?

“I worked for Manitoba’s largest telecommunications company, which is MTS. It’s now known as Bell MTS. That’s where I received a lot of my technical training. I was also at the University of Winnipeg for my education degree. I merged my tech skills with education and found a job at Sisler High School, teaching technology courses.”

Do you find that this generation of students is a lot more technically proficient? I was born in the 1980s.

“Same with me. It really depends. I think there was a point in time when that was true, but now a lot of devices are automated. For example, with smartphones you just go to the app store to download an app on your phone. It’s removed the user’s awareness of how the programs are installed, how they work, and how they’re integrated. For example, in my Grade Nine class I actually witnessed the deterioration of skills. Because of the easy features of phones and tablets.”

Our generation would have been exposed to Windows 3.1 and MS-DOS 5. We saw command prompts.

“That’s right. We had to install these programs. Operating systems were buggy and sometimes they didn’t work. We had to fix them on our own. That’s how I learned about computers.”

Jobs in cybersecurity are going to get more in demand. I see our industry starting to touch everything in people’s lives partly because of the Internet of Things (IoT).

“That’s right. I totally agree. The tentacles of technology are reaching as far as they can, integrating into every sector of the economy.”

Do kids come into your class already with some technical literacy?

“They do, but it’s deteriorating over time. My Grade Nines, even five years ago, were stronger than my Grade Nines this year. The biggest difference I see is that my initial Grade nines had desktops at home, whereas these Grade Nines have tablets and cellphones. Most kids don’t know what a command line is until I show them. Kids don’t understand that the command line is a lot more efficient than a GUI if you understand the commands. But once you start teaching kids, they absorb information like a sponge.”

Charles Bazilewich is a special Coach, because he helped to get Cybertitan started.  He’s the Coach of Astral from Sisler High School in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada:

How did you help make CyberTitan a thing?

“I got into teaching because I was asked to coach a football team in my old high school. I was a jock first before I was a tech. I got a few Cisco certifications and then I got interested in being in the classroom more. As soon as I got my teacher designation, I was in school teaching tech programs.

My second year of teaching, we got asked if we wanted to participate in an event that brought CyberPatriot to Winnipeg. The hook was the winner was going to win a trip to Washington, D.C. to compete against the Americans. At the time, Ian Trump was being trained by SEIC to take over the responsibilities and grow it in Canada. So, we ended up doing very well in that first inaugural pilot program. When I looked at what CyberPatriot was doing, looking at what the American educators were doing with the American students, I realized two things. I had to bring Sisler High school up to the level of those American schools. And we really needed to try to grow this in Canada.

I was speaking at a conference and there were some representatives there from ICTC. So I said we were having a really good time engaging in the CyberPatriot competition, our students are happy, our students are getting employed, our students are engaged. So how can we get something like this going in Canada? So ICTC were warm to it. There was about a two-year growth phase. Then there was enough interest to make this one of ICTC’s initiatives.”

I had the pleasure of speaking with a couple of the students who were competing in the finals event.

First I spoke with Dereck T., a member of the Multiply and Surrender team:

When did you first get interested in computing?

“I started around Grade Seven. Basically, a friend came up to me and he asked me if I wanted to make a computer game with him. He asked me if I knew programming and I lied to him. As we were making a game, I just looked stuff up.”

What’s your first programming language?

“Python.”

How did learning programming lead to an interest in cybersecurity?

“My interest in cybersecurity started later on, when I started high school.”

Does your school have a good IT program?

“We do have a computer science program. I actually really like it.”

Did you learn some basics of hacking and cybersecurity from that program?

“Most of my learning of cybersecurity was self study. The program at Mackenzie was more just programming in general.”

Did you ever play around with networking applications like Wireshark?

“Yeah. I guess I have been exposed to the Internet for a long time. I have been curious about how the network flows and how to access it.”

So you’re blue-teaming at the competition. Have you ever looked at logs from networking devices and stuff like that?

“Yeah. Especially when I’m just debugging in general. If my router’s acting up maybe I can check the logs and see if something’s going on. The strategy is just to look at keywords because obviously there’s a lot of output. Participating in CyberTitan means I’ve had some experience looking at firewalls.”

That’s the type of work network administrators and people in SOCs (security operations centers) do. Is that something you’d want to get into professionally?

“To be honest, I don’t know what I want to get into professionally yet. I’m still in Grade Eleven. But I definitely want to get into something computer-related, though.”

I also spoke with Emily Y. Of the Falcontech Terabytches from Centre Wellington District High School in Fergus, Ontario, Canadä:

When did you start getting interested in computing?

“In my Grade Nine year I took Introduction to Computer Technology. It wasn’t until summer of last year that I started getting into cybersecurity. My teacher recommended it to me, because we had a boy’s team that were already in the nationals last year.

We took a class that was an introduction to hardware. We were doing basic breadboarding, like Raspberry Pi. We learned how to assemble and disassemble computers.”

I heard that one of the targets that was hit in today’s competition was some sort of computer system on a boat?

“Yeah, it was called the Love Boat. A reference to a sitcom from the 90s. [Writer’s note: The show actually ran from 1977 to 1986] The different computerized systems of the boat each got hit. So we actually had to deal with ransomware too. So it was pretty interesting. In school we made our sort of test ransomware.”

Ransomware these days is now being used in cyberwarfare. WannaCry is an example.

“Yeah, we were learning about WannaCry in school. The reason why ransomware is popular for Windows is that something in the command prompt just autoruns things all the time.”

Powershell?

“Windows Powershell, yeah. It’s the Powershell that makes it so susceptible to ransomware. We found it really interesting how Windows hasn’t really addressed this yet.”

Heather Ricciuto is from IBM, an important sponsor of the CyberTitan event:

How did IBM get involved with CyberTitan?

“We’ve been a part of CyberTitan from the beginning. I work in outreach, and work with educators and students to help address the skills gap we face in cybersecurity through education, which includes providing IBM resources free of charge. I was familiar with CyberPatriot in the U.S. When I met Sandra Saric a few years ago, she told me they were now building CyberTitan here in Canada. Kids don’t need to decide right now if this is the path they want to take. But this gives them an opportunity to learn something about cybersecurity.”

What sort of resources has IBM provided to CyberTitan?

“We’ve provided funding. Also, throughout the country, particularly in New Brunswick, we have a number of IBMers who volunteer as team mentors. We also sent swag for the teams here today. That’s just a little something fun for the students.”

Is IBM paying attention to how the kids do in this competition, considering future hires?

“Of course, we pay attention to everybody we meet. But there’s got to be some willingness on both sides to stay in touch. Certainly if students are interested in learning more about IBM, there are opportunities in cybersecurity and other roles at IBM.

In cybersecurity, we not only have a huge skills gap, but also a huge gender gap. The female representation in cybersecurity is abysmal. So I’m really excited to see an all girls team here, the Falcontech Terabytches from Centre Wellington DHS. At IBM, we’re very dedicated to diversity.”

Sandra Saric of ICTC has been instrumental in making CyberTitan happen.

How did you get involved in CyberTitan?

“We got involved through Sisler High School, they were involved through CyberPatriot for a number of years. Sisler High School connected ICTC with CyberPatriot, and in a very quick period we realized there was something here. Three years ago we got involved with the first groups of students who got involved in CyberTitan. The first year we had 40 teams. The next year we had 90. And now we had 189 teams. In the finals, we have our ten top teams.”

The federal government backing through ICTC has been instrumental.

“Absolutely. And the Communications Security Establishment have been crucial for us as a Platinum sponsor. And the Department of National Defense and the Canadian Armed Forces have been a big help as well. What’s nice is that we have the government, industry, and education all getting together on this.”

On May 15, I attended the National Finals Awards Gala. It was great to see everyone who was involved, students, coaches, ICTC, IBM, KPMG, and representatives from the Department of National Defense and the Canadian Armed Forces all at the banquet. There was good food, good drink (just for us adults, of course), and cheesy music. A lot of inspirational speeches were made. At one point I was personally thanked by the organizers! But of course, the most important part was finding out which team won, and to congratulate them.

In the end, the top ten teams were:  

  • Astral from Sisler High School in Winnipeg, Red Enclave
  • Cyber Knights 1 from Moncton High School in Moncton, New Brunswick
  • Eagles 3 from Bliss Carman Middle School in Fredericton, New Brunswick
  • The all-girls Falcontech Terabytches from Centre Wellington District High School in Fergus, Ontario
  • Haig Tech Support from Earl Haig Secondary School in Toronto, Ontario
  • LIFO from Burnaby South Secondary School in Burnaby, British Columbia
  • Multiply and Surrender from William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate Institute in Toronto
  • Olympians A from Old Scona Academic in Edmonton, Alberta
  • Saints from St. Malachy’s Memorial High School in Saint John, New Brunswick.
  • And the winning team was... Haig Tech Support! Congratulations, kids.

Quite frankly, I’m excited to see what happens for the third annual CyberTitan competition next year!