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Dalhousie's National Cybersecurity Triumph

Posted by Andrea Hart on December 7, 2023 in Awards
Dalhousie's Faculty of Computer Science's senior team, Meltdown and junior team, Spectre (photos provided).
Dalhousie's Faculty of Computer Science's senior team, Meltdown and junior team, Spectre (photos provided).

After months of preparation, navigating weekly training courses, and undergoing both individual and group testing, everything led up to this crucial moment. On November 18th Dalhousie's Faculty of Computer Science teams stood as prepared as possible for the National Cyber Security Challenge.

The National Cyber Security Challenge consisted of eight teams competing at the regional level and 63 teams at the national level. Among the 63 stood two Dalhousie Computer Science teams - the senior team, Meltdown, and the junior team, Spectre.

Winning the Cyber Security Regional Challenge the year prior meant Dalhousie was able to proceed to the national challenge where teams attempted to find and exploit vulnerabilities in a simulated, realistic corporate environment. 

Meltdown achieved an impressive 2nd place regionally and secured a 10th position nationwide. Meanwhile, Spectre came in 3rd at the regional level and a remarkable 15th place nationally. Both teams placed within the top three in Atlantic Canada and the top 15 in the entire country.

From Regionals to Nationals 

To successfully prepare for the national challenge, two coaches ready the teams for the difficult hacking challenges that lay ahead. Computer Science Instructor and PhD student, Rafael Copstein and Computer Science PhD student, Conrado Boeira. Together, they organized training sessions leading up to the event. 

“We built the teams with members who had a focus on cybersecurity and defence. We chose the students mainly due to their enthusiasm and willingness to learn, which made the training sessions all the more enjoyable,” explains Meltdown team lead, Rafael. “It was always exciting to show a new technique, tackle a new problem, and discuss our solutions because all of the students involved were also highly motivated to learn and perform well on the competition.”

Although this wasn’t the first Cyber Security Challenge for some, preparing for the national challenge was still no easy task. Keremalp, a Master of Computer Science student participated in the regional competition but knew the national competition would demand more focus. 

“Our preparation involved weekly group meetings every Monday, where we collectively tackled problems in hacking environments like Hack The Box and continuing this practice until the competition date,” says Meltdown team member, Keremalp. 

Surviving the clock

The challenge has a four-hour time limit and contains multiple problems that must be solved within this tight timeframe. This year, the challenge looked a little different for team lead Rafael. He watched both teams perform from the sidelines, enthusiastically cheering them on in his coaching role. 

Although Rafael wasn’t in the trenches with teams Meltdown and Spectre, he certainty felt the tension, “effectively strategizing which problems to address, determine the optimal order, and coordinating with teammates – all while the clock is ticking by and witnessing your live ranking fluctuate – is one of the most challenging parts of the competition,” says Rafael.

Amous, a Computer Science PhD student, echoes this as she reflects on the day of the challenge. “The challenge consisted of a set of difficult questions that has a couple of different parts,” she explains. “This year, the challenge had both attack and defence - we split our work into a few parts and each of the team members would take on different questions.” 

Amous decided to participate again this year after enjoying her previous experience. Despite it being her second time participating, the task proved to be no easy feat. The challenge remained tough all the way through. In fact, the competition kept everyone on the edge of their seats until the very end.

For Meltdown, the final placement was uncertain until the final minute. At first, they were in 3rd place, but things took a turn when Keremalp secured two additional flags, earning the team an extra 1000 points and securing 2nd place in the competition. 

“When I think about the challenge and those final minutes, I still feel good about it,” says Keremalp. 

Beyond the medals

While the regional competition was undoubtedly challenging, every team member departed with a sense that they had gained far more than just a medal.

For Keremalp, this year’s challenge introduced new topics that he found intriguing but also more difficult. Topics such as defence strategies and ChatGPT prompting required more time and effort to solve. Although this year’s challenge certainty tested the team’s strength, Keremalp felt he grew immensely from last year.

“Compared to last year, my confidence and ability in tackling the problems improved significantly,” explains the Master of Computer Science student. “This experience taught me the importance of confidence, and effective team collaboration, which I believe are key elements for success in such competitions.”

For Rafael, although he stepped back from the direct competition, he gained a significant stride in trust and personal growth. “As a coach, I learned to trust my students,” he says. “In the beginning I believed I’d have to guide them on every detail of the competition, all types of problems, and how to tackle everything. But in the end, we worked together as a group, every student showed up for each other and contributed.”

As for Amous and the other team members, they encourage all computer science students to take part in the challenge. It’s a journey that not only fosters professional growth but also personal development. 

Read more about Dalhousie's Regional Competition. 

Team Meltdown members:

  • Logan MacDougall
  • Lauren Galbraith
  • Keremalp Durdabak
  • Amous Qiu 
  • Hardison Wang

Team Spectre members:

  • Conrado Boeira
  • Luis Cabarique
  • Ayat Kamona
  • Jonathan Parsons
  • Ana Hernandez