CLEMSON — Students from throughout the Southeast converged on Clemson University on Sept. 28 for a competition that tested their cybersecurity skills and helped prepare them to protect sensitive data from hackers.

Eight teams participated in Clemson University-Capture The Flag. Each brought five members and one adviser to the competition, which was held in the Watt Family Innovation Center. WYFF covered the competition, and the story can be found here.

Participants were tasked with completing a set of challenges that mimic what hackers do when they steal data except the playing field was websites and programs set up for the competition, said Max Harley, president of event host CU Cyber.

“You have to be good at hacking things to understand how you’re going to defend them,” Harley said. “You have to understand the bad guy’s methods to detect them.”

The teams were competitors for a day, but it was to prepare against a common enemy. Hackers around the world have stolen personal information, held data for ransom and in at least one case took an entire nation offline.

The threat of cyberattack is constant to any computer connected to the internet, and it’s expected to grow. The cost of cybercrime worldwide is on track to double from $3 trillion a year in 2015 to $6 trillion in 2021, according to a December report by Cybersecurity Ventures.

In response, the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences is enhancing its cybersecurity offerings.

Students can now minor in cybersecurity and several faculty members are conducting cutting-edge research in the field. Further, two faculty members have relocated to the Charleston area for the academic year to plant the seeds for new cybersecurity initiatives at the Zucker Family Graduate Education Center.

A big part of what CU Cyber adds is hands-on experience for students. Members travel the region for competitions and hold weekly meetings where the topics can range from offensive and defensive techniques to forensics and social aspects of cybersecurity.

Weston Belk, a senior majoring in computer science, said the skills he learned in CU Cyber helped him win accolades from a manager at his internship.

“She liked that I had a good, wide range of knowledge about a lot of topics in cybersecurity,” he said. “Companies can teach you specialization, but it’s harder for them to teach you a little bit about everything.”

Cybersecurity is one of the nation’s most in-demand career fields. The United States has 313,735 cybersecurity job openings, including 3,380 in South Carolina, according to Cyber Seek.

For CU Cyber, the competition in the Watt Family Innovation Center was the first major event of the 2019-20 academic year. CU Cyber had about 25 members last year and is looking to increase to about 30 this year.

Harley, a senior majoring in computer science, said all majors are welcome in CU Cyber and all can do well in cybersecurity. But to him, the best way for Clemson students to prepare for a cybersecurity career is to major in computer science or computer engineering and get hands-on experience through CU Cyber.

“The club is on the forefront of what cybersecurity is,” Harley said.

Ten teams were invited to the competition. They included teams from: Clemson, the University of Central Florida, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Kennesaw State University, the University of Georgia, the University of South Carolina, the College of Charleston and the University of Georgia.

As CU Cyber prepared for Capture the Flag competition it was also in training to defend its title in a separate contest, the Palmetto Cyber Defense Competition.

CU Cyber’s team took first place in 2019, 2018 and 2016 and was first runner-up in 2017. The team plans to return to Trident Technical College in North Charleston for the spring 2020 competition and likes its chances for another win.

“Every year we replace core components of the team because people graduate,” Belk said. “Year in and year out, we’ve been able to replace them. We’ve been able to train new people, and we’ve been able to work well together as a team.”