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SU computer science students hack their way to the top
Author: Media and communication, Faculty of Science
Published: 01/03/2018

The BitPhase team from Stellenbosch University won the main challenge of the first Cybersecurity Challenge that took place during the annual conference of the Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC) in Pretoria from 3 to 6 December 2017.

First year computer science students Luke Joshua, Joseph Rautenbach, Jonathan Botha and MSc student Nicolaas Weideman outwitted seven other teams during the gruelling four day main challenge. Other challenges included password cracking and attacking the system.

The competition was organised by the South African National Research Network (SANReN) as part of its aim to stimulate interest in information and cyber security within computer networks by presenting students with challenges that replicate real world scenarios.

During the first round of the competition in October 2017, over a hundred students from all over South Africa competed in solving network security problems such as decrypting passwords, geo-locating pictures, securing web sites, finding information from TCP traffic and extracting weak security keys. Only eight teams of four members each were then placed to compete in the final round in December.

The main challenge consisted of multiple cyber security scenarios and teams had to attack a system in order to exploit its vulnerabilities: “The idea of the competition is that in order to defend a system, one must know how to attack it first," Botha explains.

Examples of scenarios for the main challenge included finding a way to break through a password-protected android app, reverse engineering of an application to get a valid license key in order to get access to the application, analysing the workings of a fake bank app with the goal of transferring money from other fake accounts into their own; using forensic techniques on retrieved data that was designed to appear damaged; and cracking RSA encryption from a partial key.

They also had to find information hidden in files using a variety of steganographic techniques. Traditionally steganography includes a vast array of secret communication methods that conceal the message's very existence, such as invisible ink. But in the world of computer technology it includes obfuscation and embedding files in text and images

For their efforts, the members of Team BitPhase each received a gold medal and a complete Raspberry Pi set with a camera module.

Team Blitzkrieg, also from Stellenbosch University, was placed fourth in the major challenge.

Dr Steve Kroon, a lecturer in the Computer Science Division in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at SU, says they are extremely proud of the students.

On the photo above, from left to right, Nicolaas Weideman, Joseph Rautenbach, Jonathan Botha and Luke Joshua.