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The Self-Taught USCGA Cyber Team

by Stefanie Senkow
October 1, 2018

Cyber LabNEW LONDON, Conn. -- Hearing the term “capture the flag” may bring back childhood memories of the popular recess game, but for cadets on the U.S. Coast Guard Academy (USCGA) Cyber Team it evokes an entirely different meaning.

“The goal of a “cyber” capture the flag (CTF) game is to find a hidden string of characters within a computer network or program. Certain vulnerabilities make these programs susceptible to attackers, and when our Team enters competitions, we engage in these types of games to help us become more efficient as cyber security investigators and problem-solvers,” said First Class Cadet (1/c) Kaitlyn DeValk, Cyber Team Captain.

Comprised of 15-20 cadets representing a diverse pool of academic majors, the USCGA Cyber Team is in its fourth year and is uniquely self-taught. While other college cyber teams use paid-for courses and tools, the USCGA Cyber Team designs and programs their own “CTF exercises” to use for practicing their skills.

“We use a variety of programming languages and platforms to create our own modules, but we primarily work with the Linux operating system to both solve and create our own homemade challenges. Since we are such a new team, we have learned to work with what we’ve got. This has led us to learn through creation of CTF-style challenges, so we can learn about these security vulnerabilities on both sides,” said 1/c DeValk.

What may also come as a surprise is that cadets need no prior experience in cyber to join the Team, so if words like “cryptography” and “binary exploitation” don’t ring a bell, that’s ok.

“You can have zero foundational knowledge coming into the team; we teach each other everything,” said 1/c DeValk.

This was the case for 2/c Delaney Swift, who became friends with the cadets who were already on the Team, prior to joining.

“We would all go out to dinner and I would be the only one at the table not on the team and I didn’t recognize half of the vocabulary!” laughs 2/c Swift. “That’s when I decided to join the Team and I love every bit of it.”

Upon joining the team as Government major, 2/c Swift carved out her own niche - international cyber defense and deterrence theory.

“I didn’t have the coding and software background, so I asked myself, how can I bring cyber into my major? Cyber is a huge deal and we need to ask ourselves, who is responsible for responding to these types of cyber-attacks,” said 2/c Swift.

And while scoring points at national competitions like the coveted NSA Cyber Exercise is gratifying, what’s even better are the problem-solving skills cadets gain that will serve them well as they embark on their Coast Guard officer careers and beyond.

“We’re learning to become more comfortable with looking at a Coast Guard network, or any type of network, and when we see bad things we have an inkling on how to solve them. We may not know what went wrong, but we have that problem-solving mindset to approach these problems correctly.”