Carolina Zarate and Umesh Padia still aren’t sure if their friend Chris Thompson got the birthday messages they sent him. When your friends are high school computer science whizzes, birthday wishes may not come in the form of a card, or an all-caps text. They’re encrypted on your Facebook wall, hidden messages that take an equally talented nerd to uncover.
In terms of equal talent, this trio is tough to beat. In December they won an international cybersecurity competition run by the U.S. Department of Defense Cyber Crime Center, placing first among high school teams internationally and first overall in Maryland, where they were up against college teams and cybersecurity professionals in a state that leads in the industry. PHS Injection, their team name, came in 12th place overall internationally, among 317 teams that included high school and college teams.
“It said to me that this is something I want to be doing,” said Carolina, who earned a scholarship to study computer science at Carnegie Mellon University next year.
Carolina, 18, and Chris, 18 graduated last week from Poolesville High School’s science, math, computer science magnet program. Umesh, 17, is a rising senior there.
DC3, as the competition is commonly known, is one of several competitions that the team spent much of their weekends and after school hours working on over the last year. They scored points by completing 32 cybersecurity challenges at five difficulty levels, of which the top two were challenges the Department of Defense had yet to solve. The top tier requires participants to build a tool to solve a problem.
“We get to kind of be in their shoes,” Umesh said, solving real problems in the tug-of-war world between hackers and governments and companies trying to protect their information. At several points in the competition, they stumbled across information that they weren’t sure they were supposed to find. They found computer code that showed the location of the one the competition organizers, whose movement they could track down to the address. Another time they found a way to see the information of another team in the competition in the Middle East.
Carolina and Umesh, who live in Germantown, began learning computer science at Roberto Clemente Middle School. They realized that starting so early gave them a leg up, but they don’t want other students to be intimidated by programing and cybersecurity. Along with Chris, who lives in Poolesville and started studying computer science in high school, they want to create their own competition that invites novices to the field, where they could start from scratch and learn about computer science.
“With all the other competitions there’s an expectation that you know a bit of it,” Umesh said.
They also talked to their teachers about offering a cybersecurity and digital forensics class at the high school, to show students that computer science leads to real and interesting professions. Now the school has incorporated the topics into the ninth grade curriculum.
Attracting girls to the program is a challenge of its own. Carolina was the only girl in the science, computer science, math program in the senior class this year. As captains of the Computer Science Team, a school club, Carolina and Umesh have been trying to make computer science accessible to girls and anyone else interested.
“We need to make sure they have all the resources they need to continue,” Umesh said. Through the long hours working on competitions, and movie breaks in between, the trio incorporated computer science into their friendships.
“We are constantly challenging each other in ways such as having an encrypted message as a Facebook post or telling a joke that relates to forensics,” Chris wrote in an email to The Gazette.
It also showed them what cybersecurity meant beyond the classroom.
“We got our eyes open to see how easy it is for people to find your data,” Umesh said, adding, “cybersecurity plays an increasingly larger role in everything.”
Our utilities can be hacked, our information is collected and stored in vulnerable databases. Just accessing an unsecure network in a coffee shop can give a hacker access to your phone or computer. Umesh suggests looking for “https” in your browser, which denotes a standard of security, not downloading questionable programs, and making passwords long and unpredictable. A 12-character password, he said, takes 12 times the computing power to figure out, compared to a short one.
Next year they hope to meet up at the Cybersecurity Awareness Week competition at the New York University School of Engineering, where Chris will be studying. There they’ll continue to crack security problems, and toss around cyber jokes.