A student cybersecurity team from Cal Poly Pomona has won the international Collegiate Penetration Testing Competition (CPTC), which challenges the world’s brightest cybersecurity students to put their hacking skills to the test.
The finals included 15 teams that had advanced from eight regional competitions in North America, Europe and the Middle East. Stanford University placed second, and Tennessee Technological University was third.
“The team’s win was due to an entire year of dedicated training and preparation by the team,” said Ron Pike, computer information systems professor. “They take on the efforts themselves and are one of the few self-directed and self-run teams in the competition.”
In the competition, the cybersecurity teams were “hired” to serve as what are called pentesters for a fictitious candy and croissant factory, tasked with using their hacking skills to evaluate the business’s weaknesses and provide solutions to prevent future breaches.
The Cal Poly Pomona team hacked into business process and customer experience systems, including the industrial control systems in the distribution plants, customer rewards program, and ecommerce and payment processing applications. After exposing the system’s vulnerabilities, they proposed mitigating measures and presented their findings to judges and sponsors, winning top scores for technical competency, business acumen and professional communication.
“At this year’s finals, Cal Poly Pomona’s team excelled again against all three of these elements,” said Bob Kalka, vice president of IBM’s Business Security Unit, the premier sponsor of CPTC.
The Bronco team consisted of Justin Covairt, Nathan Eberhardt (’21, computer science), Gabriel Fok, Dylan Tran, Robinson Tran (’21, computer information systems), Alexey Tselevich and alternates Jacob Jayme and Taylor Nguyen. Pike and Professor Emeritus Dan Mason served as the team’s advisors.
Prior to the event, the students honed their cyber skills through bootcamps, rehearsals, and devoted countless hours at the campus telecommunications lab. The team also consulted with the university’s information technology department for technical support, and the College of Business Administration and College of Science for providing the foundations of their cybersecurity skills.
The CPTC began in October with more than 500 students around the world and culminated in January with the final round at the Rochester Institute of Technology in a hybrid format.
“The cybersecurity skills gap is a real problem faced by organizations,” said Doug Rogers, information security director at Wegmans, the event’s theme sponsor. “Competitions such as CPTC provide an excellent, real-world training environment for up-and-coming cybersecurity professionals to build relevant skills prior to entering the workforce.”
Cal Poly Pomona’s first place finish comes after placing third the past two years. The team credits alumni mentors, hard work and camaraderie, which elevated their skills and moved them up the leader board.
Eberhardt, team co-captain, said the university’s experiential and hands-on learning approach was another major factor leading to the team’s success and his career. He has already been hired as an incident response consultant at CrowdStrike.
“Making sure we are very effective in business skills, to make us stand out to give overall business value differentiated Cal Poly Pomona from the other teams,” Eberhardt said. “A lot of our success comes from always pushing each other to get better and better.”
Leveraging the worldwide recognition from the win, Pike aims to launch a new cyber competition focused on security operations centers and hopes more students will be inspired to engage in competitions and clubs.
Cal Poly Pomona was recognized as a Center for Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education by the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security in 2005 for its robust programs and expert faculty leaders. To learn more, visit the Cyber Collaborative webpage.