UF-SIT Team Takes First in Pwny Race at NYU’s CSAW Competition

A picture of the hacked challenge at CSAW

Walking into New York University for Cyber Security Awareness Week (CSAW), the Kernel Sanders team didn’t know they would leave as champions. Owen Flannagan, a junior competing on behalf of the University of Florida team, swept through the bracket beating No. 1 seed Perfect Blue to win first place in the Pwny Race.

The team is part of the UF Student InfoSec Team (UF-SIT), a group composed mostly of students from the Department of Computer & Information Science & Engineering. Four students from UF-SIT went to CSAW, a student-led cybersecurity competition. Each student (Joshua Haddad, Blas Kojusner, Nozomi Watanabe, and Flannagan) was able to solve challenges throughout the 36-hour event.

The Pwny Race was a competition in which each team chose one binary exploitation enthusiast from their team who could exploit a server the quickest from scratch. Flannagan, a computer science major, was chosen by his team. The participating member’s screen was broadcast live online during each race, adding extra pressure to an already intense experience.

“Normally, there are important parts of binary exploitation in which you must do static analysis in different tools. However, every time I switched between tools I felt like there were things that I missed, and I knew that the commentators would catch that,” Flannagan said. “Luckily, I have streamed myself on Twitch practicing before, so I am relatively used to the pressure of being watched live.”

Though most of the competition took place in a large room with attendees working on their laptops, the Pwny Race participants were secluded where they couldn’t receive any help from teammates and were unaware of how their competitors were doing. Due to his success, Flannagan competed in four races over a period of 8 hours.

During the final round, Flannagan hit a bit of a snag because he was using the wrong operating system.

“It almost cost me my win,” he said.

But he was able to finish first, leaving with a victory. View the live stream to see just how close the final moments of the competition were.

Beyond the Pwny Race success, other students from the University of Florida placed in a handful of events. Grant Hernandez, Hunter Searle and Claire Seiler, along with Flannagan, placed third in the Embedded Security Challenge, with an honorable mention going to Jacob Crain, an undergraduate research assistant from the UF Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Hadi Abdullah, a Ph.D. student, placed second in the Applied Research competition for his paper titled “Practical Hidden Voice Attacks against Speech and Speaker Recognition Systems.” And team G8rs, consisting of Grant Hernandez, Hunter Searle and Hadi Abdullah, placed third in the Security Quiz Bowl.

“The depth and breadth of knowledge exhibited by University of Florida students at CSAW speak to the excellence of their program and the dedication of these students to take on some of the most difficult challenges society faces,” said NYU Tandon Professor Ramesh Karri, the faculty leader for CSAW. “In 17 years of CSAW, we have never seen a university’s teams win medals across so many categories — and UF’s valuable contributions to the very first Logic Locking competition in the world will advance scholarship in this vital emerging field. Our congratulations go out to the students and faculty mentors of the University of Florida.”

In the Logic Locking Conquest, students were challenged to solve the problem of securing chips during the manufacturing process. During the preliminary round, teams worked on a chip design devised by students and mentors at NYU Abu Dhabi and UF to either find the key or devise a new one in order to protect the circuitry.

UF-SIT is open to all students at UF. The group generally participates in 50-60 competitions each year, varying in scale and duration and a majority are online. This year the group has participated in more than 45 competitions so far. UF-SIT funding comes from student government, and the group is always seeking sponsors for student travel to these types of competitions.

Visit the UF-SIT or join their slack channel to learn more about the group and how to become a member.

Left to Right: Hunter Searle, Grant Hernandez and Hadi Abdullah as Team G8rs in the Security Quiz Bowl with IBM sponsors Joby Cherian (left) and emcee Heather Ricciuto (right).
Credit: NYU Tandon: Elena Olivo
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Allison Logan
Marketing & Communications Specialist
Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering