NEWS | May 5, 2020

Pa. National Guard holds virtual cyber event

By Staff Sgt. Zane Craig

FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa. – The Pennsylvania National Guard hosted a virtual Wi-Fighter Challenge April 24 as part of DeSales University's Third Annual Cyber Security and Digital Forensics Conference.

Previous Wi-Fighter events have been held at venues for students to compete in-person, and the challenge was originally scheduled to take place at DeSales, but it had to be quickly reorganized because of social distancing measures in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the short notice, the virtual challenge drew 71 participants, doubling the number that can effectively participate in-person.

Holding a live digital event with much higher participation required increased effort by the organizers and increased reliance on digital tools that can fail. To maintain the physical interaction involved in previous exercises, the organizers mailed the first 50 participants to sign up a Raspberry Pi Kit, a mini computer popular with hardware hacking, which was the focus of the exercise.

The expanded reach was the greatest benefit of the virtual event, as attendance was no longer limited by geography which allowed participants to join from 11 states, according to Capt. Sean Smith, deputy cyber team chief for the Pa. National Guard and the event’s main organizer.

“The key to success with the virtual event versus the live events were to communicate early and often to get individuals prepared and committed to attend,” said Smith. “We leveraged popular digital collaboration tools as a communication force multiplier.”

The Wi-Fighter Challenge gamifies concepts to teach the foundational skills required by cyber security experts. The word "foundational" does not imply the challenge or these skills are easy. They take a long time to master, but they are the basic tools used to respond to any real-world cyber issue, said Smith.

All 71 competitors could track their score throughout the competition, which lasted about three hours. The three winners will receive a prize through the mail.

“As someone who has done a few Capture the Flags and Cyber Competitions, I was very pleased with how this one turned out,” said second place finisher Austin Pasquel, a junior at Bloomsburg University majoring in digital forensics. "Even with it being virtual, everything was very smooth. I learned how Raspberry Pi's work and how to set them up, a skill I have always wanted to learn. The challenges started with background info on the Pi, to how to set it up, to basic Linux commands, to intermediate Linux knowledge, up to the final challenge of a reverse engineering problem.”

The exercise received an outpouring of positive feedback, showing the enthusiasm for military cyber careers, according to Smith. Of the 71 participants, 27 indicated they would like to be contacted by a National Guard recruiter.