Cal Poly Students Create Space Cybercrime for This Year’s Virtual DEF CON Hacker Convention

Cal Poly students working at the CCI created this virtual control room on Amazon WorkSpace. for this year's Def Con.

Last summer, it was determined that hackers had breached NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory a year before, stealing data that included information related to a Mars mission. While the hack was discovered before more serious damage could be done, it revealed that the effects of cybercrime could extend even beyond the planet.

It also inspired a space-themed hacker challenge Cal Poly students created for this year’s Def Con competition, August 6-9.

“Protecting data in space has become an increasingly relevant topic, so it’s exciting to work with something that has such tangible applications,” said Bree Zedar, a mechanical engineering major who created the storyboard and puzzles for the challenge.

Def Con, held annually in Las Vegas, is one of the largest hacker conventions in the world. The convention, which usually features speakers and challenges related to cybersecurity, will be held virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cal Poly students who work for the California Cybersecurity Institute (CCI) were invited to create one of this year’s challenges. 

“When we were debating concepts and topics, we wanted to make sure that the scenario was interesting, unique and current,” said James Poirier, an electrical engineering student who served as technical lead in creating digital forensics for the challenge.

The team drew inspiration from recent headlines. The June 2019 NASA hack gave credence to fears that cybercriminals could access commercial satellites — crashing them into the International Space Station or using them to interfere with electric grids, water networks and transportation systems on Earth.

In the fictional Cal Poly challenge, a satellite crashes to the Earth mid-launch, leaving it to amateur cybersleuths to determine how the crash happened, who caused it and why.

“It’s a pretty detailed story that involves a lot of layers,” Zedar said. “The story involves exposing a bunch of potential vulnerabilities of cyberspace data, like social engineering and the Internet of Things.”

The same challenge will also be issued to dozens of middle- and high-school students during the annual California Cyber Innovation Challenge (CCIC), which will be held virtually this year on Oct 2nd – 4th.  Typically, the CCIC is conducted through immersive environments that represent real-world scenarios. That requires participants to dig through evidence planted in mock rooms created and furnished by CCI staff. The teams connect the physical evidence to cyber methods to solve the mystery.

But the COVID-19 pandemic forced Cal Poly students to come up with virtual challenges.

“This situation is requiring our student employees to pivot and adjust in ways that stretch their levels of knowledge and force them to adapt to new skills as well as overcome new challenges,” said Danielle Borrelli, operations coordinator at the CCI.

CCI partnerships with the DxHub and Amazon Cloud Innovation Centers program helped, allowing students to use the latest services and technology to make the challenge run smoothly for over 1,000 users. By using Amazon Sumerian – a platform and toolkit allowing users to build mixed reality apps – students expanded their knowledge of coding and virtual reality.

Mechanical engineering major Bree Zedar created the storyboard and puzzles for Cal Poly’s Def Con challenge.

Then students had to learn about space exploration and technology.

“I looked at a lot of space-related articles that explained the physics behind motion, temperature and other satellite-related functions,” said Luis Plascencia, a computer science major, who created a code representing satellite functions. “Each and every day I would learn something new about satellites and how they operate in Earth’s orbit to help improve not only space exploration but communication across the globe.”

During the project, Plascencia had to collaborate with other programmers, graphic designers and videographers.

Inspired by online games like Club Penguin, the student employees adopted a lot of mission-style challenges for the virtual competition, with puzzles related to the crashed satellite story. Those taking the challenge will peruse through virtual rooms, solving puzzles and investigating each stop in order to collect all the clues they’ll need to dig through the digital forensics.

The different “rooms” created by the CCI students include the crash site itself and a cleanroom, said Zahnae Aquino, a computer science major who worked on the virtual escape rooms with Josie Grundler, a liberal arts and engineering studies student.

“Participants are given the ability to navigate the plot from an interactive, puzzle-driven lens through the virtual rooms,” Aquino said.

The entire experience, she said, is in the first person.

“I think the scenario is really engaging and fun,” Poirier said. “And the story behind it is really exciting to discover as you are going through the challenges.”

One advantage of a virtual world, Zedar said, is that virtual sets can be larger and more expansive.

“So the sets can get extremely detailed and really mirror these real-life scenarios without having to worry about ‘faking it,’” she said.

The challenge is designed for all ages and skill levels, Poirier said.

“My favorite part of this challenge is how accessible it is to anyone with internet access and a desire to learn about satellites and space,” he said.

Cal Poly students created this virtual world for this year’s DEF CON.

The Cal Poly College of Engineering understands there has been an enormous amount of turmoil and transition due to Coronavirus (COVID-19). As we continue offering support to our students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends, we also continue providing critical updates as well as college highlights. Ours is a college full of creative and bright engineers and staff. For more information on COVID-19 visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. For more information on how Cal Poly is responding to COVID-19, visit the Cal Poly Coronavirus website Coronavirus website.

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