UCF graduate student Cameron Whitehead is on track to become a member of the first U.S Cyber Team to represent the nation in the inaugural International Cyber Security Challenge later this year in Athens, Greece.

Whitehead, who is studying for his master’s degree in digital forensics, recently placed second out of 688 competitors in the U.S. Cyber Open, the first qualifying step to join the team. The top 60 finishers will square off next in the upcoming virtual U.S. Cyber Combine Invitational, which will determine the national team to advance to the international event.

“The process is very similar to selecting a dream team to compete in the Olympics,” says Tom Nedorost ’02MS, faculty advisor for the student cybersecurity club, Hack@UCF.

“I’ve been interested in programming and computers since I first got access to them as a kid,” says Whitehead of Lake Mary, Florida. “This eventually led me into cyber security specifically, which to me was far more exciting than programming. It is a fascinating field that brings together concepts as different as abstract algebra, which is vital in modern cryptography, and management processes that ensure that programmers write secure code.”

The International Cyber Security Challenge will be hosted by the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity as a part of a promotion to raise awareness about cybersecurity. The U.S. team selection is being overseen by the company Katzcy and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

In this first virtual round from his home, Whitehead says he had to solve a variety of problems, such as finding and exploiting vulnerabilities in websites, breaking encryption systems to read hidden messages, reverse engineering software, and analyzing a forensic copy of a mobile phone. “The big challenge was completing these challenges as fast as possible, since it was a race to see who would complete them all first and lock in the top places,” he says.

In the next round of tests, Nedorost says the U.S. Cyber Games head coach will put the competitors through a series of challenges to further assess their knowledge and skills before selecting 20 for the first U.S. Cyber Team.

Whitehead’s sister, Caitlin, also studying for her master’s in digital forensics, finished in the top 20 of the recent competition. Nedorost says she likely would be invited to compete in the next round, too.

Whitehead says much of his competition success is because of the mentoring and assistance of many of the students and alumni at the Hack@UCF club on campus. He encourages anyone interested in competing or learning more about cyber security to join the club.

Nedorost says that since the U.S. Cyber Games is a new competition this year, he had very little information to share with students about how to prepare.

“I simply forwarded an email advertisement promoting the U.S. Cyber Games to Hack@UCF club members and encouraged students to register if they wanted to compete,” he says.

Whitehead says “to do well in competitions, you have to compete in competitions, and that often includes losing. While I don’t always do well, I always learn something new that I can take into the next competition.”

After graduation planned for 2024, Whitehead says he’d like to start his own cyber security firm, perhaps with a focus on digital forensics incident response.

Story by Gene Kruckemyer ’73, UCF Today