UMBC Cyber Dawgs are named CyberForce national champions

Published: Nov 18, 2019

UMBC’s Cyber Defense Team, known as the Cyber Dawgs, emerged the national champion team in the U.S. Department of Energy’s fifth annual CyberForce Competition. The Cyber Dawgs earned first place overall out of more than 100 teams from universities across the country.

Ten national laboratories hosted competing teams this year, November 15 16. UMBC competed at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, Illinois, while other teams traveled to sites like the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Competing teams hailed from a broad range of institutions, including Virginia Tech, Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech, Texas A&M and the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The competition tasks students with defending critical energy infrastructure during simulated cyberattacks. The scenarios are designed to be realistic, focused on water and power systems and including real-world constraints, such as insufficient budget for system upkeep and limited information on system needs. During the competition, “red teams,” including industry professionals, attack the system, while the students work to ensure that the infrastructure is available to their customers, or “green teams,” who test system usability. 

The teams receive points based on how successfully they address attacks, while still allowing users to access the infrastructure they need. The teams are also awarded points for innovative defense tactics and ideas. This year’s competition saw several leading teams with neck-and-neck scores until the final round, when UMBC’s Cyber Dawgs pulled ahead for the victory.

The competition offers students a unique opportunity to develop their cybersecurity skills in relation to critical infrastructure, and have hands-on experience in a realistic cyberattack situation.

“The CyberForce competition is the most unique of our annual events, allowing us to experiment with network configurations to defend an industrial control system against adversaries while playing the roles of an IT organization,” explains RJ Joyce ’18, M.S. ’20, computer science, a member of the winning team. “The hard work, dedication, and creativity that each member brought to the team lifted us from a regional win last year to a national win this year.”

In addition to Joyce, last weekend’s winning team included Anna Staats ’20, computer science; Drew Barrett ’20, computer science; Grant Spencer ’20, computer science; Cyrus Bonyadi, Ph.D. ’23, computer science; and Seamus Burke ’20, computer science.

“The team’s second national championship in three years shows the enthusiasm, grit, and tenacity of our students in demonstrating their technical cyber expertise in a competitive arena,” says Rick Forno, senior lecturer of computer science and assistant director of UMBC’s Center for Cybersecurity. 

Forno advises the Cyber Dawgs with Charles Nicholas, professor of computer science and electrical engineering. “It’s an awesome thing not just for the team and university,” he says, “but for each competitor individually, as they prepare to enter the cybersecurity workforce after graduation.”

UMBC students have a strong record in state and national competition. In 2018, UMBC computer science and information systems students won the top prize at the Maryland Cyber Challenge. A year earlier, the UMBC Cyber Dawgs won the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition

Update: In early December 2019, the Cyber Dawgs won the 2019 Maryland Cyber Challenge, with a team comprised of Staats, Spencer, and Burke. They competed against several skilled challengers, including a team from the U.S. Air Force Academy.


Banner image: The Cyber Dawgs at the CyberForce competition. From left, Charles Nicholas, Anna Staats, Drew Barrett, Grant Spencer, Cyrus Bonyadi, and Seamus Burke. Photo courtesy of Argonne National Lab.

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