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Kansas State University Students Have Huge Win In National Cyber-Security Contest

Argonne National Laboratory
Kansas State University's Cyber Defense Club took second place at the U.S. Department of Energy's national competition. Club president BreAnn Anshutz is seated second from the right.

Kansas State University is now officially home to one of the best groups of cyber-defense trainees in the nation.

In December, the university's Cyber Defense Club won second place nationally and first place regionally in a competition hosted by the United States Department of Energy. The K-State students competed against 70 teams from 24 states at Argonne National Laboratoryin Chicago, one of seven sites to host the contest.

The team defended "a simulated oil transportation network, a power delivery system and a high-performance computing system against attacks created by experts from the national labs, the private sector and the National Guard," according to a K-State press release.

The club's president, senior BreAnn Anshutz, was in charge of setting up a mail server and help desk website for the CyberForce Competition.

"It's just really awesome to see the different ideas teams come up with," Anshutz told Central Standard host Gina Kaufmann. "The way they do different things and kind of the camaraderie of, yes, we didn't really sleep the night before, but we’re doing this because we love it."

That thing they love is hacking and defending against hackers, though Anshutz said they try not to use that word. But that’s more or less what they're doing — legally.

Internet-related crimes are an ever-growing threat to any individual or company using a computer. In the past five years, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Centerhas logged nearly 1.5 million complaints involving $5.5 billion in public and private losses.

Credit Argonne National Laboratory
Members of the Kansas State Cyber Defense Club. President BreAnn Anshutz is second from left.

The club and the other nationwide competitions encourage college students' interest in cyber security in the hopes of filling some of the estimated 1.5 million job openings in the field in 2019, according the CyberForce website.

Anshutz cited the growing popularity of large companies putting "red teams" in place for added cyber security. She said those groups constantly try "to break into their own company’s network just to kind of keep the blue team (or the defenders) on their toes."

She said being on one of these teams is just the kind of "fun job" many in her club would love after college, but to make it that far, they know they must keep the fun well in check.

"Within our club we have a lot of strict stuff about the ethics behind hacking," Anshutz said. Members must adhere to the rules, or else.

In this case the "or else" could mean jail time. She told Kaufmann they stress to the hackers-in-training that they must receive written permission for any system they attempt to breach.

Anshutz said she knew little about computers but was curious about the club when she joined as a freshman. What she's since found is that students from a variety of majors, such as economics, business, and music, are drawn to the club and also begin more or less out of curiosity.

"If you're a business major, you might be making decisions later on that will help your cyber security person if you personally don't want to focus on that," she said.

Anshutz, who is from Great Bend, Kansas, said she had perhaps written 10 lines of code before she joined the club. But she stuck with it and is now a computer science major.

She said one big takeaway from her time in the club is the ability to dive into a topic and come out knowing a lot about it, even if she’d never heard of it two weeks before.

"Everything was going over my head. I knew it might not make sense this time around, but maybe the next time around it will," she told Kaufmann. "So, I just kept going, and it started being really interesting for me."

Listen to Central Standard's entire conversation with BreAnn Anshutz of the Kansas State University's Cyber Defense Club here.

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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