UC Santa Barbara’s resident hackers, Team Shellphish, earned $750,000 for their third-place finish at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) 2016 Cyber Grand Challenge, held August 4 in Las Vegas. The team also earned $750,000 just for qualifying and was the only academic team to emerge as a top finisher.
The ever-evolving group of graduate students in the lab of UCSB computer science professors Giovanni Vigna and Christopher Kruegel pitted their skills against some of the best hacker teams in the country, testing their ability to simultaneously detect and fix weaknesses in their own home base of servers while seeking out and exploiting bugs in their rivals’ systems.
The competition required each team to build and program an autonomous bot, which would wage battle against other bots in a no-holds barred cyber-melee. Once deployed, the bots were untouchable, so team members had little to do on the day of the final competition, which was held alongside the famous DEF CON hacking conference, except watch the test of their programming and engineering skills in action.
The theme for this year’s challenge, the Internet of Things, addressed the proliferation of internetconnected appliances, which can make our lives easier while also increasing our vulnerability to attacks. With virtually every aspect of our lives coming online, participants had to consider what will be the best strategy for catching and fixing bugs with minimal disruption to the indispensable services the appliances provide. At least some of those mysteries were explored by Mechanical Phish, Shellphish’s robotic hacker alter-ego, which netted the team its big cash prize, plus bragging rights and a well-deserved post-event rest.