November 19, 2018

Cyber 9/12 Challenge



Even as many members of the SIPA community left campus on November 2 to begin a well-deserved fall break, more than 100 students, faculty, volunteers, and cybersecurity experts roamed the halls of the International Affairs Building. They were participants in the third annual NYC Cyber 9/12 Competition, a policy and strategy competition in which students from across the country competed to develop policy recommendations tackling a fictional cyber catastrophe.

Hosted in cooperation with the Atlantic Council, the event was run by students in SIPA’s Digital and Cyber Group with generous support from sponsor Morgan Stanley.

The competition is the brainchild of Jason Healey, a senior research scholar and adjunct professor at SIPA. Born out of Healey’s experience in the White House situation room—and his memories of policy advisers and technology specialists who talked past each other—Cyber 9/12 aims to bridge that gap.

“This is a competition for students who understand international affairs and public policy,” explained Healey. “Too much of the discussion and too many similar competitions were on the technology-only side, for the technologists and the hackers. It really helps us have a broader conversation about the national-security policy responses to cyber.”

This year’s competition was built around hypothetical cases of ransomware at an airport, fraudulent financial transactions, and the creation of a social media bot and a IoT (internet of things) bot.

It was also the biggest yet, attracting 28 teams from schools as far away as Texas. But by 1 p.m. on Saturday, only four remained: two from SIPA, one from West Point and one from Harvard’s Kennedy School. And ultimately, after a grueling 36 hours, a team comprising SIPA students CJ Dixon MIA ’19, Katherine Kirk MPA ’19, Caitlin Strawder MPA ’19, and Claire Teitelman MPA ’19 took home first place.

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Professor Jason Healey joins winning students CJ Dixon, Caitlin Strawder, Claire Teitelman, and Katherine Kirk.
Professor Jason Healey (center) joins winning students (from left) CJ Dixon, Caitlin Strawder, Claire Teitelman, and Katherine Kirk.
Known as C3K, the team’s strength came from its multidisciplinary approach. Members included a former Amy officer, a Russia expert who aspires to moving on to consulting after graduation, a Pickering Fellow with a background in mediation, and a digital strategist for political campaigns.

Healey agrees that a diversity of experiences and perspectives is vital to cyber security and an aim of Cyber 9/12: “It helps to have a better debate.”

Healey also views the competition as a way to get women interested in the field.

“Women are not necessarily coming up in the numbers we would like from STEM [fields], but they are certainly coming in from law, international affairs, and public policy,” he said.

In recent years, SIPA has been growing its cyber-related curriculum. All four students on the winning team have taken or are currently taking Healey’s course in Dynamics of Cyber Conflict; two are enrolled in a course on Cyber Threat Intelligence Analysis with JD Work, who served as a judge in the competition.

“Very few schools are teaching these kinds of very practical classes,” says Healey. “SIPA students can write and they can think, and so by giving them these classes they can go to fantastic places like FireEye or Symantec or Morgan Stanley or Citibank.”

The judges came from all corners of cybersecurity. Judges for the final round included—in addition to Work—Heather King, the chief operating officer of Cyber Threat Alliance, and Gordon Goldstein of Silver Lake, a private equity firm that invests in global tech. (A fourth judge asked to remain anonymous for the time being.)

Another judge, Christian Van de Werken MPA ’17, who helped found the Digital and Cyber Group and won the Cyber 9/12 competition as a student, returned this year to judge the competition. He now works for IBM as a blockchain consultant.

He said Cyber 9/12’s greatest success is “bringing everyone together to collaborate on ideas and collaborate on solutions, which is crucial to making sure that we have a more cyber-secure future.”

Between each round, student participants interacted with judges and attended a series of talks and panels on topics including , from career advice, to women in cybersecurity to a demonstration on “How to Think Like an Attacker.”

John Costello from the Department of Homeland gave the keynote and Jerry Brady, CISO and Head of Global IT Security at Morgan Stanley, sat down with Professor Healey for a fireside chat.

The two-day event ended Saturday afternoon when the winners were announced. When asked about competing in the next Cyber 9/12 Competition in Washington this spring, members of the winning team summarized their experience in writing:

“We learned a lot about the field, our individual strengths, and working as a team,” they told SIPA News. “We met some great people. We’ll think about D.C. after a nap.”