TJ is Top High School for Cyber Sleuths . . .
Two of the students who keep TJ’s systems humming by day spend much of their time outside of school as cyber warriors, capturing flags and defeating black-hat hackers. Fox Wilson, TJ ’16, and Samuel Damashek, TJ ’17, are two of TJ’s four lead Student Systems Administrators (SysAdmins). As Infrastructure Co-Leads they maintain the servers that back the school website, student intranet, and student email, fixing problems that arise, upgrading programs and services to keep them secure and functioning optimally, and implementing new services in response to student needs (they work under the supervision of Network/Systems Administrator Andrew Hamilton, profiled in the August 2015 issue).
When not using their expertise to keep school systems running smoothly, they are busy honing skills that could help protect the country against the next cyber attack. The pair are among an elite group of high school students who consistently outscore both high school and college teams at major computer security competitions.
Many are Capture the Flag (CTF) competitions, following either a “Jeopardy” (given an answer, come up with the question) format or an “attack-defense” format, in which teams must find and fix vulnerabilities in their own systems while exploiting those of other teams. Traditionally, CTFs have been targeted at college students or industry professionals. Several competitions are now open to high school students as a way of attracting the best minds to a field that is critical to our nation’s security.
Working individually and as a team, Fox and Samuel have compiled an impressive record in national and international CTF competition (including an online competition hosted by Russian universities and another that led to a trip to South Korea):
- This September, they defeated 64 other teams to claim their third consecutive title in the highly competitive MITRE “STEM CTF” college division, co-sponsored the International Information System Security Certification Consortium, Inc., (ISC)²®, the global, non-profit leader in educating and certifying cyber, information, software and infrastructure security professionals. Joining the pair on the winning team were former SysAdmins Robert O’Connell, TJ ’15, James Forcier, TJ ’14, and Peter Foley, TJ ’13. In addition, the team of Eric Wang, TJ ’17, and Samuel Kim, TJ ’16, defeated 30 other teams to win first place in the competition’s high school division.
- In March, Samuel’s team placed first out of 40 high school and college teams at the University of Maryland’s “Metropolis Cyber Skyline.” Working alone, Fox placed second.
- Last November, Samuel’s team placed 6th out of 3,000 middle and high school teams in Carnegie Mellon University’s “picoCTF,” a prestigious nationwide online competition.
The boys also compete successfully at college hackathons (see below) and at other coding-related competitions such as Booz Allen Hamilton’s “Data Science Bowl,” which poses data analysis challenges based on a different real-life scenario each year.
Both home-schooled prior to TJ, they spent so much of their time teaching themselves about computers that as freshmen they already had years of coding experience and several computer languages under their respective belts. They’ve completed (or will complete this year) all the Computer Science classes TJ offers, and they intend to continue with CS in college. This summer, they interned at different computer security companies. Fox hopes eventually to work in information security or network/systems administration, Samuel in computer defense research and computer/network infrastructure.
And in Breaking News (read about the final results):
Three of the fifteen teams who bested a pool of over 2,000 to make the finals of the world’s biggest student cybersecurity competition, the NYU Cyber Security Awareness Week CTF, have TJ members:
- A team from Rensselaer Polytechnic that includes Austin Ralls, TJ ’13;
- A team that includes Samuel Kim, TJ ’16; and
- A team made up entirely of TJ ’15 grads now at Carnegie Mellon — Matthew Savage, Zachary Wade, Corwin de Boor, and Eric Sun.
The TJ Administration views participation in CTFs and related competitions as time well spent: “[Cyber] competitions encourage systemic thinking, situation problem-solving, social responsibility, a commitment to service, and support of protecting other people. A mission, computers and puzzles—what could be better?” Dr. Glazer said (courtesy Dan Waddell, managing director, North America Region and director of U.S. Government Affairs for (ISC)², writing for InfoSecurity Magazine).
Contrary to what you might assume, hackathons don’t involve hacking into databases to steal private information. Instead, these popular events are about bringing teams of students together to find out how much they can accomplish when they code for 24-or-more hours straight. TJ hosts its own hackathon (see June 2015 issue); recent graduates run a non-profit that brings these events to high-school students in cities across the country (see May/June 2014 issue); and a student-run non-profit holds an annual hackathon to introduce coding to middle-schoolers (see March 2015 issue). So it should come as no surprise that TJ students are coding champions.
- JR Cabansag, TJ ’16 (pictured), won Best Overall Hack and a $1,000 prize at October’s HackDC 2015, a 36-hour healthcare hackathon for undergraduates, graduate students, and corporate teams that focused on building mobile apps for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). JR’s “Positivity” app allows people who suffer from PTSD to spread encouragement to others, inform their friends about how they’re doing, or keep a personal diary of their symptoms. He was the only high-school competitor at the event. (A few months ago, JR released an iPhone app/game called Electribirds, currently available on the iOS appstore. All of the funds raised by video ads that run alongside the app will be donated to Joyful Heart Foundation, a charity working to end domestic violence. Support both a TJ student and a great charity- check it out!)
- Major League Hacking (MLH) the group that oversees the country’s premier student-run college hackathons, informally crowned TJ its “Top High School” in recognition of TJ students having earned the most points during its 2015 spring season. Accepting the award on behalf of the school at Hack the Planet in Mountain View, CA, MLH’s invitation-only season finale held this August, were Timothy Cyrus, TJ ’16 (a SysAdmin, see above) and Rohan Pandit, TJ ’16. At the Penn State MLH event, Tim’s project – an app that helps people automatically donate change from everyday purchases toward programs that make micro-loans — finished in the top ten, but he emphasized that TJ’s award recognized overall participation rather than any one success: “The award is for all the TJ students who found time outside their busy schedules to go to a hackathon and build something,” Tim said.
- At January’s University of Michigan MHacks, an MLH spring season event that is the largest student-run hackathon in the country, Matt Kaufer, TJ ’16, Peter Rohrer, TJ ’16, and Tarun Punnoose, TJ ’16, teamed with older brothers Sam Rohrer, TJ ’14, and Rohan Punnoose, TJ ’14, to win “Best Virtual Reality” for “Metadrone,” their augmented-reality system that allows the user to control the Parrot AR drone using nothing more than hand gestures.
- In 2014, Matt Kaufer, TJ ’16, and Pierce Stegman, TJ ’16, were a top-ten winning team at Hack the North, the University of Waterloo’s 36-hour event that, with 667 participants selected from thousands, is Canada’s largest international hackathon. Their “Spacebowl” game uses muscle contraction data gathered by Myo armbands combined with Oculus Rift goggles to create a virtual reality bowling experience.