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A Cyber Competition with Cities at the Center

Posted Dec 15 2019
Cyber 9/12 Winning Team FSociety with Avril D. Haines, deputy director of Columbia World Projects (left)

What started as a few Tweets and Reddit subtopics turned into a mass protest movement. Faith in New York City government receded as widespread outages and sudden glitches in city technology emerged throughout the five boroughs. Public kiosks were sputtering and identification systems at airports were failing. Was this a cyber attack or just a series of coincidences?

As students from around the country descended on Morningside Heights for the fourth annual Cyber 9/12 competition, they had only one thought in mind: “How do we make it stop?”

The fictional scenario they faced—one designed especially for the competition—was complex. Citizen unrest had erupted across New York City’s cyberscape as a result of a failed technology coupled with an unbelievable result in the mayoral election. A candidate’s surprise victory led many to believe the election was stolen or compromised as vulnerabilities in the election system were reported. 

Hosted by SIPA's Tech and Policy Initiative in partnership with the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative, the competition on November 8 and 9 was organized, staffed, and executed by SIPA’s Digital and Cyber Group (DCG), a student organization. Competitors included more than 120 students representing undergraduate and graduate schools across the country—institutions as diverse as Texas A&M, Georgetown, and the U.S. Military Academy.

This year’s chief student organizer, Augusta Gronquist MPA ’20, was exceptionally proud of the results of the event.

“The DCG team was incredible, and I’m so grateful for their dedication as it made organizing and executing the event so much easier,” Gronquist said. “We wanted to make this more than just a conference. We added a career fair, created a positive culture of competition, and overall promoted the future landscape of cybersecurity. Student run, student enriched, and student experienced.”

The key to the competition’s scenarios is to be as close to real events as possible, to help the student competitors develop deadline-driven, cross-disciplinary approaches. Each team was evaluated against their competitors in a round-robin format.

“The great part about this year’s competition was the integration of the scenario at both a city and federal level,” said SIPA Senior Research Scholar Jason Healey. “In large-scale incidents like this, much of the responsibility is on nascent city agencies to take the lead. We captured that reality here.”

CJ Dixon MIA ’19, a member of last year’s winning team and one of many SIPA alumni to return to the competition as a judge, found himself seated on the other side of the table from where he once strategized as a student. 

“Coming back makes it that much more surreal,” Dixon, now a senior adviser at New York City Cyber Command, said. “I feel very honored to be invited to come back to SIPA to help support this competition, help judge, and help mentor some students that come through.” 

SIPA Cyber Fellow Jennifer Gennaro MPA ’17, another team coach who previously took part in the event as both a student and an organizer, commented on the event’s evolution over time.

“The competition at SIPA has really grown since the first competition; this year we had over 30 teams from a wide array of schools,” Gennaro said. “This year’s program really highlights the partnerships and presence that SIPA has cultivated in the cybersecurity space.”

In the end it was a team of graduate students from the Fletcher School at Tufts that took home the top honors. Other elites included Wellesley College, whose undergraduate women finished second, and Harvard Kennedy School, which earned third place to finish the sweep for the Massachusetts schools. 

“We had an incredibly diverse set of finalists, with nine of the 12 being women, and more than half being people of color,” said DCG Vice President Virpratap Vikram Singh MIA ’20. “This diversity is reflective of where the future of cybersecurity needs to be, and DCG was excited to have that happen.”

The exercise’s scenario raised numerous cross-cutting issues policymakers will be grappling with in the near term—from free speech to the definition of privacy and even thresholds to war.  

The Cyber 9/12 teams are dedicating the energy to prepare for the impacts that it may have. The next generation of policy students are stretching their minds beyond the imaginable and configuring policy that is fit for the future. Because when an exercise becomes reality, we must be ready. 

— Daniel E. White MPA ’20

WATCH: From Competitor to Judge—CJ Dixon’s Cyber 9/12 Journey