Illinois students learn to defend hackers by becoming one for class project
In order to build defenses against and stop cyber hackers, you have to think like—and become—a hacker.
That’s the thinking behind an extra credit challenge in CSL and ECE Associate Professor Michael Bailey’s Introduction to Computer Security class, taught to undergraduate students at the University of Illinois. The challenge is to hack into a security system successfully—with an opportunity to skip the midterm or final as the prize.
Designed to help students learn what it’s like to hack security systems, the goal is to teach students how they can build better defenses against hackers.
The system, set up in the lower level of the Coordinated Science Lab, consists of three parts. First, the students have to override a security camera video feed. Second, with computer coding, they have to break into a secured box, and finally once inside, they take an envelope with a final challenge to complete.
CSL graduate students Deepak Kumar, Zane Ma, and Simon Kim, as well as research scientist Joshua Mason, set up and monitor the device, and leave the details of the challenge vague, requiring students to apply the skills they learned in class to a real-world problem.
The competition is fierce. Twelve teams are competing, according to Kumar, and only the top 5 are exempt from the exams.
“The challenge is not easy to do, and many groups take several hours to complete each challenge,” said Kumar, a PhD student in computer science. “But we don’t give any hints. Students have to apply what they learn in class in creative ways to solve this problem, which is exactly what hackers do.”