Excellence in Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge Proves CS Relevancy by Solving Global Cybersecurity Issues

2/14/2022 9:30:20 AM Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

As a second-year undergraduate student with Illinois Computer Science, Kylie Zhang came to campus this year for the first time – after studying remotely last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic – with a goal in mind to find her niche in CS.

Illinois CS students Kylie Zhang, left with dark hair and dark blue shirt, and Grant Garrett-Grossman, right with dark hair and white sweater
Illinois CS undergraduate students Kylie Zhang, left, and Grant Garrett-Grossman enjoyed the way their interests in cybersecurity and policymaking came together in the Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge - in which two Illinois teams finished tied for second.

“There’s so much to do, so many choices I could make, and suddenly I felt as though I didn’t know where I fit,” Zhang said. “I started to ask myself what I wanted to do with my life. I’m here because I love computer science, but I also like the humanities. I wondered how I could reconcile that.”

In professor Ryan Cunningham’s CS 498 – Law & Policy Issues in CS, she took to the subject matter. Zhang is majoring in CS and hopes to also earn a degree in History, so the topics encompassing this course, at the intersection of public policy and computing technology, resonated with her interests.

After a class one day, she felt the urge to discuss this further with Cunningham. She asked how she could best blend her love for CS with her interest in the humanities.

“Professor Cunningham was super insightful and kind about it,” Zhang said. “He started talking about all of these people who managed to walk their own path through this exact type of interest. He also mentioned a competition called Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge that serves as a great outlet.”

Zhang wasn’t alone in this exact discovery.

She joined one of two teams – composed of seven students, total – that the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign fielded for the competition. Many of the participants found inspiration from Cunningham and his CS 498 course.

Another such participant is fellow CS undergraduate student, Grant Garrett-Grossman. A senior, Garrett-Grossman knew since high school that he wanted to study something STEM-related in college. Even though he naturally gravitated toward computer engineering, he enjoyed how diverse the CS curriculum is for undergraduate students.

The Cyber 9/12 competition offered one more opportunity to tap into his interests that expand beyond CS, as his Global Studies minor indicates.

“Being exposed to policymaking is something that's been on my bucket list of career goals. So, I thought it would be an interesting experience to get a feel for this in a simulated environment through an event like Cyber 9/12,” Garrett-Grossman said.

Sponsored by the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law – at the University of Texas at Austin – as well as the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative, the competition offers teams a chance to “collaborate to provide policy analysis and recommendations in response to an evolving, fictional fact-pattern relating to cyber crisis and conflict.”

Not only did the two Illinois teams compete; they excelled. 

At the UT Austin regional, which included 17 teams, both Illinois squads finished in a tie for second – behind only one team from the US Air Force Academy.

Zhang said the two-day event was challenging but, ultimately, well worth the effort. The excellent result for each team only enhanced the experience.

“Seeing that we both finished second was cool for two reasons,” Zhang said. “For one, it's a testament to the strength of our program here at Illinois CS. It’s great to compete alongside such a diverse group of people. We all brought different skills and interests to the table, and that’s why we all worked so well together.

“Also, the result was a boost of confidence because we all came in here not really knowing what to expect. The entire experience was a nice way for us to see how we've grown.”

Ryan Cunningham
Ryan Cunningham

From their coach’s perspective, both teams showed, more than anything, an ability to adapt to strict guidelines and pressure-packed situations through creative thinking.

Cunningham watched on as their efforts extended beyond their solid baseline for technical aptitude in cybersecurity. He thought this was best exemplified through the “imaginary competition scenario.”

“This centered around the idea that Germany was reluctant to back the US in pressuring Russia on prosecuting cybercriminals. There was a widening diplomatic gulf between Germany and the US,” Cunningham said. “Our students used their own knowledge that Germany depends on Russia for natural gas to propose that America supply Germany with more natural gas to bring the two countries closer together and reduce Russia’s leverage over Germany.

“This solution impressed the judges as a creative win-win that wasn’t obvious from the scenario text.”

Cunningham hoped that the students enjoyed this activity that took them outside of the normal, everyday CS education.

Considering that both Zhang and Garrett-Grossman are now ready to capitalize off this experience by furthering the conversation, it’s safe to say Cunningham’s hope has come true.

Zhang will remain active in this sort of activity through her student group, SIGPolicy – started with her Cyber 9/12 teammate, Neha Kaki – within the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).

Meanwhile, Garrett-Grossman will continue to discuss these sorts of topics and much more as Treasurer and Professional Development Chair of the Science Policy Group on campus.