Hackathons and Cybersecurity Competitions Showing Promise to Battle Data Breach Epidemic Sweeping the World

By Ryan Burr



On Jan. 22, 2019, the personal information of 45,000 patients at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago was breached. Names, addresses, social security numbers and other records were disclosed to a foreign party, with the hospital scrambling to find answers.


According to the Chicago Tribune, affected patients were immediately notified by email, and later offered a free, one-year service to an identity protection service. The situation was quickly contained, but the damage done to patients and the reputation of Rush University is irreversible.


This story is all-too-familiar for millions around the world, as data breaches are becoming more common. Guaranteed privacy is becoming a relic in a world where one’s personal information is easily accessible online, and the problem shows no signs of going away.


So why is this happening?

According to the Information Systems Security Certification Consortium (ISC²), there is a shortage of around 3 million cybersecurity professionals around the world. Due to a lack of interest, morale and budget, corporations are growing desperate to find employees equipped to prevent data breaches.


As the problem continues to cast a shadow over anyone with information online, many are turning to educational institutions for a potentially brighter future.


Computer science is continuing to grow as an interest for college students, many of whom are equipped with the potential and passion necessary for a career in cybersecurity.


In an attempt to generate interest in the field, the SLO Hacks club at Cal Poly runs a quarterly “hackathon” for students around the nation. Feb. 1-3,  around 500 competitors were tasked with formulating and pitching an original coded project to a panel of judges.


The students were encouraged to combine creativity with their coding skills, and the competitive environment provides an incentive to produce innovative material.


Steven Taruc, a Cal Poly statistics sophomore and the SLO Hacks marketing director, was introduced to hacking competitions in high school. Now, it is a core part of his daily life.


"Initially I was involved with hackathons when a few friends, and I joined a local one senior year,” he said. “We ended up winning it, which sparked my interest in these type of events.”


He continued to explain that his Advanced Placement Computer Science class and involvement with similar clubs in high school led him to hacking, but that other students may not be aware of these opportunities.


"[Hackathons] should be advertised in high schools far more frequently, considering I had no clue what they were until senior year,” Taruc said. “The hacking community in SLO is very small compared to schools like UC Berkeley and UCLA as well.”


There’s a high demand for students with the skills that are developed by hackathon-type events, and the motivation generated by competition could create a new wave of interest for cybersecurity.


Competitions similar to the SLO Hackathon focus solely on cybersecurity issues, and exemplify just how much potential there is in this industry.


Taruc agrees that cybersecurity could gain a lot of traction if it became a popular category at SLO Hacks and other similar events. He hopes that the club will move in that direction.


He explained that the hackathon utilizes games like capture the flag to maintain a competitive environment for students to thrive in, claiming the presence of friendly opposition is extremely helpful when coding under stress.


"Maybe we should integrate more challenges or even hold a project track specifically for cybersecurity,” he said. “We could also contact companies that involve cybersecurity to sponsor and mentor the event.”


It’s clear that there’s a budding interest amongst tech-savvy students and hackers to become more involved in the world of cybersecurity.


Young people are constantly searching for ways to translate their passions creatively, and these events provide an environment for growth and progress.


"I can see the positive impact if we acknowledge that field [cybersecurity] and push it more to attendees” Taruc said.


This desire to bring cybersecurity to the forefront of computer science education could have a positive impact on the future of privacy, as more professionals would be available to prevent disasters similar to that of the Rush University Medical Center.


Taruc acknowledged that there may be a long way to go before cybersecurity becomes a core focus in classrooms and hackathons, but the potential and desire to create a safer future online is becoming more prevalent every day.


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