ICS Students Train for Embedded Capture the Flag Competition

A team of students from UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) spent the fall quarter preparing for battle. Computer Science Professor Ian Harris has been training the students, who will participate from January to April 2022 in the MITRE Embedded Capture the Flag (eCTF) competition. The team will spend the first two months designing and implementing a secure system, and they will spend the final month analyzing and attacking the other teams’ designs.

“It’s certainly a different skillset for the students — one that’s needed in an industry that you can’t get in regular classes,” says Harris. “You could open up books and learn on your own, but it’s not as cool as doing a competition.”

Computer science major Zhuoyi Yang is excited to put what she’s learned in her courses over the last three years into practice before she graduates in June. “Cybersecurity is a major concern nowadays, and many people are working in this field to help improve network security,” she says. “I’m very happy to get a first-hand experience on this topic in college.”

The team will have to consider memory limitations and performance issues and will need to use encryption and hash functions as they design their system. Their initial training has focused on the software part of the system before moving on to the physical components of microcontrollers, programmers and breadboards. “The training has been quite fruitful for me,” says Yang. “All of us were able to wire up these small devices and connect them to our laptops. We successfully coded and compiled our very first program on Microchip Studio to light up an LED light bulb. I was so thrilled to see my light blink for the first time!”

Computer science Ph.D. student Kush Dave, who is being advised by Harris, is also on the team. The competition changes each year, and for 2022, participants will be writing the bootloader for secure firmware updates — which aligns well with Dave’s work. “My current research involves securing firmware updates for embedded systems and IoT devices,” he says. “Since this competition focuses on this very same topic, I feel like I can contribute to the UCI eCTF team and, in turn, gain experience and knowledge to further my research.”

Dave has been helping Harris with training this quarter. “I helped design and create the introductory slides as well as the slides for training the students for this competition,” he says. “I also helped design the hardware demos, where students are instructed on the basic outline and configuration of a simple microcontroller and how they can use a programmer in tandem with their computers to successfully program a microcontroller.”

Part of Dave’s research is being funded by the U.S. Department of Energy through a subaward to UCI from the Cybersecurity Manufacturing Innovation Institute (CyManII) at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “That project is on the security of industrial manufacturing systems,” says Harris, “and UCI’s piece of it is specifically on training.” So, a long-term goal of joining the competition is to explore how to make this kind of training scalable, sharing the unique skills learned on a much broader scale.

The immediate goal, however, is to train the current 12 team members. In addition to Yang and Dave, this includes senior computer science majors Jalen Zhehan Chuang, Geonwoo Han, Shreyas Hukkeri, William Hyunwoo Jeon, Hojae Lee, and Dong Zou; senior computer science and engineering majors Jacob Jung-Yi Huang and Dani Lowe; senior data science major Jeein Kim; and computer science master’s student Lucas Chang.

The team is being sponsored by UCI’s Cybersecurity Policy & Research Institute (CPRI), which is providing space on campus as well as hardware for training. “All of my experience — in government, in the private sector and in academia — has taught me that there is no substitute for hands-on experience. Period. Not a lecture course, not a capstone project, not even a Ph.D. thesis, as important as all of those are,” says CPRI Executive Director Bryan Cunningham. “We are so proud of our students for putting their hands on real-world problems and engaging with them in a sustained way. CPRI is proud to sponsor each and every one of them: Win or lose, we’re behind you.”

Shani Murray