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Source: University of Waikato

The largest cyber security challenge in New Zealand kicks off this week with students from around Aotearoa preparing to hack, learn and solve their way to virtual glory – and a decent prize pool.

Following a nationwide ‘Capture the Flag’ competition last month, 150 participants have been invited to Hamilton to attend the flagship event being held at the University of Waikato campus, now in its 9th year. Over two days (22 and 23 July), young cyber enthusiasts from high schools and tertiary study meet, learn and network with industry professionals and their peers.

Participants are also presented with practical challenges that have involved cracking cyber security puzzles, defending a server against a fictitious ‘attack’ and hacking every-day devices, from drones and fridges to smart lights and home security systems. Cash prizes are awarded at various stages of the competition with a grand prize of $1500 up for grabs.

“With a desperate lack of numbers in the cyber security workforce, events like this are imperative for teaching and recruiting the talent of the future,” says event organiser and Waikato University Senior Lecturer in Computer Science, Dr Vimal Kumar.

“Right now we have a skills gap, particularly in cyber security. This event provides a platform for students to showcase their skills and be visible to their peers and to industry.”

Dr Kumar says Waikato University predicted the skills shortage a long time ago – that prediction prompted the creation of New Zealand’s first Master of Cyber Security alongside the country’s first Cyber Security Lab.

“We took steps to fill the shortage but demand has massively outstripped supply. The Covid pandemic and border closure has exacerbated this to some extent, as we would usually rely on international expertise coming in. This has impacted the job market, which is a benefit to people in the country with fresh graduates often securing close to $100k salaries.”

In past years students have done ‘side challenges’ during the two-day event, hacking drones and the Internet of Things. This year Waikato is working with colleagues at Victoria University in Wellington to challenge students to hack into a machine in the cloud.

Dr Kumar says the secret to being effective in the cyber security space is being adaptable. “Things are rapidly evolving in cyber security, so we don’t focus on tools but more about the underlying foundations.Tools come and go but the ability to think, creatively solve problems and adapt will keep us ahead of the game.”

Speakers this year include Bhojraj Parmar from Mandiant, who will speak about the importance of unity and diversity in the industry, NZ Police talking about digital forensics and cyber investigations, and other industry professionals.