November 22, 2018

Students break the code on national cyber security competition

​​After winning a Canadian championship, most people would assume there would be quite a bit of euphoric celebration.

But that wasn't the style exhibited by Carson Hall, Zong Gao Li, Muntaqim Rahman, Kelvin Zhu and Wayne Zhu, each one bright, intelligent and set to study at high-end universities in the fall.

"The field has become so large, new advances, you don't know what to expect. There are some who believe there is no solution to cyber security. Every time you fix something, there is always someone somewhere looking to break it."

There were plenty of smiles, but nothing eccentric for the five students, known as the coding team with the nickname "Little Men', from Lorne Park Secondary School in Mississauga. The grade 12 students came out on top in the CanHack2018 Challenge – a game that allows students to strengthen skills and knowledge of cyber security. 

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The quintet could watch their scores take the lead via glancing at a computer and working at the same time, then drop behind Richmond Hill High School, only to rise again to the top throughout the challenge. Overall, the two schools were neck-and-neck throughout an exhausting two-week competition that involved more than 660 teams from across the country.

When the formal announcement was made, organizers informed Lorne Park that it was No. 1.

"Cyber security is also a major issue and we all need to be aware of the problems that can affect us."​

Sure they won and made the top one per cent of 12,000 teams around the world, but all five students will share the $1,500 prize money and also take pride in the school receiving an award of an additional $2,000 for advancement in technology.

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But there was much more to this intrepid exercise of a series of digital challenges based on unique storylines. There were items that focused on ingenuity, knowledge, skills, and maybe a bit of luck.

"It was a game that got us into it, but we quickly realized the full scale of what we were involved in and knew it was beyond self-teaching," said Muntaqim Rahman. "Computer security is a big issue and you need groups of smart people to deal with it. There was so much to learn. I was like a kid in a candy shop, didn't realize how insecure things were – and so many ways to exploit them."

The competition, which had students work with industry experts and learn cyber security skills, was sponsored by RyersonDMZ (Digital Media Zone), one of Canada's top university business incubators for early stage technology startups, and supported by the Royal Bank of Canada.

​​This is a generation born with computers, they are self learners with lots of knowledge and do well beyond the requirements of the classroom.

Haseeb Khawaja, program leader at RyersonDMZ, said the event was more than a game.

"It was a challenge on dealing with web security matters," he said. "But cyber security is also a major issue and we all need to be aware of the problems that can affect us."

The competition quickly became more than just a game. "I didn't believe we could learn so much, so quickly and this was nothing like I had seen before, but intriguing," said Zong Gao Li. "We had different categories, consulted and, surprisingly, didn't have many disagreements."

With billions of dollars spent annually as businesses and corporations invest in dealing with on-going and new threats, the Lorne Park team learned a great deal about methods to deal with cybercrime, malicious applications and attacks.

"Friendships come and go, but an exercise like this taught us to work together and collaborate using a diverse set of skills to resolve things," said Carson Hall. "The problem is that as quickly as you deal with a problem, there are hundreds more always popping up. For us, it was about trying until we got it right."

Sticking to a positive attitude, gambling at times, but exhibiting a fierce competitiveness, there were times when the team envisioned the possibility of failure.

"Just when you think things are going well, you also realize how much you don't know in cyber security," said Wayne Zhu. "The field has become so large, new advances, you don't know what to expect. There are some who believe there is no solution to cyber security. Every time you fix something, there is always someone somewhere looking to break it."

Tara Emami, a computer science and mathematics teacher at Lorne Park as well as staff supervisor for the school contingent, said 36 students showed interest in the competition leaving the school with no option but to submit 10 teams. On the results of the winning team, Emami had high praise.

"When I saw the kind of work they put in, the commitment and effort to win, I feel very optimistic about the future," said Emami. "This is a generation born with computers, they are self learners with lots of knowledge and do well beyond the requirements of the classroom. The prize wasn't important, they enjoyed the learning."

The CanHack Awards Ceremony will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 27 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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