Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

With the Drama but Not the Bruises, Hacking Becomes a Spectator Sport

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

With the Drama but Not the Bruises, Hacking Becomes a Spectator Sport

Article excerpt

Welcome to the future of hacking, where machines are the stars and the humans are in the audience.

The night before the DEF CON hacker conference began here, seven supercomputers went head-to-head in a kind of Olympics for cybersecurity. The Cyber Grand Challenge, sponsored by the military's futuristic research arm - the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - was the world's first all-machine hacking tournament.

"Cybercasters" who channeled Monday Night Football announcers delivered the play-by-play commentary for the crowd of 5,000 spectators. But these hosts came with serious geek credentials. Astrophysicist Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi teamed up with two star hackers: Hawaii John, who rocked a bushy hipster beard, and Invisig0th whose head was shaved except for a ponytail and sported a T-shirt from the cybersecurity cult classic movie "WarGames."

Seven massive screens at the Paris Hotel ballroom showed the hosts interviewing members of the seven teams, from all over the US, that built the robots. Normally, it would take them up to a year to detect and months to fix bugs hidden in complicated computer code. But as techies relaxed on an array of leather couches munching Twizzlers, they watched visualizations showing their machines finding and vanquishing software flaws in minutes.

This time, attacks were portrayed for all to see as lines of bright, multicolored dots moving from one machine to another. There was a scoreboard, tallying points for each team, as icons marked how well the computers were defending themselves. Their arena: A huge stage built above 180 tons of water to keep the high-powered machines cool.

And the audience was loving it.

"To be quite honest, I got more excited watching #DARPACGC than the #Olympics," tweeted Capture the Flag veteran and malicious software researcher Jonathan Racicot from his handle @InfectedPackets.

Clearly, this wasn't your typical capture the flag tournament in which teams compete to quickly find and fix software bugs.

As a hacker in the audience from Sweden who identified himself only as Jonas said, it's typically "guys just at computers." For DARPA, the biggest challenge was to bring some excitement of a live sporting event to hacking and Jonas said he was impressed.

Spectators were even placing bets on their favorite teams. "I got $20 on Deep Red," tweeted Cris Thomas from Tenable Security who goes by his hacker name Space Rogue, referring to the team of researchers from the defense contractor Raytheon.

Even the robots chimed in on social media. "I'm getting tired, already 40 rounds in the game and no end in sight. I wonder what my humans are doing..." tweeted Mechanical Phish, the robot built by the University of California Santa Barbara during the competition.

Computers that can find and repair security flaws on their own in real-time are a game-changer, especially when human hacking talent is in very short supply. …

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