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A team of three UCF graduate students thwarted cyberattacks on a fictional airport as part of an international cybersecurity competition, besting eight other teams to take top honors. Jeffrey DiVincent, Cameron Whitehead and Caitlin Whitehead came away with a first-place finish at the Aviation ISAC Student Cyber Challenge at the A-ISAC International Conference in Dublin, Ireland. The team split a $2,100 cash prize.

“A lot of what we did involved demonstrating attacks on simulated vulnerable systems in order to start conversations on how actual attacks could be detected or thwarted. Offensive skills like this can be used in real-world contexts like penetration testing,” Caitlin says.

Team captain DiVincent, a master’s student in cyber security and privacy, and the Whitehead siblings, master’s students in digital forensics, have been competing together for the last three years. Cameron and DiVincent met four years ago at the university’s cybersecurity club, Hack@UCF.

DiVincent says the contest was a mixture of demonstrating how threats occur and neutralizing threats at a virtual airport, Terminus.

“One moment you’re trying to fix the miniature automated people-movers from crashing into each other, and the next you’re faking a baggage claim tag and boarding pass that looked like the real thing,” he says.

The team defended against attacks on Terminus for six hours. DiVincent studied its software and the unique protocols tailor-made for the competition, Caitlin pored over logs to identify suspicious activity and Cameron operated the flight simulator and analyzed operational technology. They collaborated when necessary but relied on their individual strengths as well, trusting each other to do divide and conquer in order use their time as efficiently as possible.

“If one of us is stuck on a challenge or thinks someone else can do it better, we tag-team, share what we know so far, and move on to something else, DiVincent says. “Time is precious in these competitions.”

The trio also entered the competition in 2022, held in Orlando, as the contest rotates from a stateside location to an international one each year. They took first place last year as well, although that experience did not give them any advantages over other teams, as the challenges presented then were vastly different than those they experienced this year.

“Walking into the competition room, we didn’t know how things would go and could quickly see a lot of challenges had been radically altered from last year,” sCameron says. “However, this is what we train for. We know few plans will survive the real world and all we can do is be ready to adapt and make sure we’re as skilled as we can be.”

The team was able to travel to Ireland due to a generous donation from the Aviation ISAC organization in Maryland. The students are grateful to have been able to compete overseas — not as the Florida team — but the American team, being the only competitors from the states. While they were abroad for the contest, the students had the opportunity see the sights in Dublin and network with airline executives and aviation security personnel.

DiVincent and the Whiteheads will be graduating in the spring, so they are looking forward competing as a trio in their last contests together this year.

“The three of us would not have gotten to the point where we were competing in Dublin if not for the cybersecurity club at UCF, Hack@UCF,”Cameron says. “If anyone wants to get more involved in learning about cybersecurity or wants to compete in competitions themselves, I highly advise they get involved.”

Hack@UCF meets nearly every Friday and hosts a number of workshops throughout the week. For more information, visit their website.