DARPA’s Cyber Grand Challenge takes aim at an increasingly serious problem: the inadequacy of current network security systems, which require expert programmers to identify and repair system weaknesses - typically after attackers have taken advantage of those weaknesses to steal data or disrupt processes. Such disruptions pose greater risks than ever as more and more devices, including vehicles and homes, get networked in what has become known as “the Internet of things.”
“Today’s security methods involve experts working with computerized systems to identify attacks, craft corrective patches and signatures and distribute those correctives to users everywhere—a process that can take months from the time an attack is first launched,” said Mike Walker, DARPA program manager. “The only effective approach to defending against today’s ever-increasing volume and diversity of attacks is to shift to fully automated systems capable of discovering and neutralizing attacks instantly.”
To help accelerate this transition, DARPA launched the Cyber Grand Challenge, the first computer security tournament designed to test the wits of machines, not experts. The Challenge plans to follow a “capture the flag” competition format that experts have used for more than 20 years to test their cyber defense skills. That approach requires that competitors reverse engineer software created by challenge organizers and locate and heal its hidden weaknesses in a live network competition.
The longest-running annual capture-the-flag challenge for experts is held at an annual conference known as DEF CON, and under the terms of a new agreement the Cyber Grand Challenge final competition is scheduled to co-locate with the DEF CON Conference in Las Vegas in 2016.
At the event, computers that have made it through a series of qualifying events over the next two years would compete head-to-head in a final tournament. Custom data visualization technology is under development to make it easy for spectators—both a live audience at the conference and anyone watching the event’s video stream worldwide—to follow the action.
As of today, 35 teams from around the world have registered with DARPA to construct and program high-performance computers capable of competing in the Cyber Grand Challenge. Most competitors have entered on the “open track” available to self-funded teams.
A parallel “proposal track” consists of teams invited and partially supported by DARPA to develop automated network defense technology. Those teams represent a mix of participants from industry and academia and will receive seed funding from DARPA until their performance is tested in open competition involving all teams at a major qualification event scheduled for June 2015. Additional teams may register to participate through November 2, 2014.
The winning team from the CGC finals stands to receive a cash prize of $2 million. Second place can earn $1 million and third place $750,000.