Eleven Navy scientists and engineers from Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC), Corona Division spent a week hacking government cybersecurity systems and planning future crisis response.
If you think you read that incorrectly, you didn’t. The scientists and engineers were participants in the Hack the Machine prize challenge, which kicked off March 23 to give teams opportunities to try their hacking skills to compete for bragging rights and, for eligible contestants, up to $95,000 in prize money. One of two participating NSWC Corona teams, “Not the Corona Virus,” snagged a third place win for the competition’s data science category.
The Navy-hosted event was in its fifth iteration and its first all-virtual setting encouraged innovation in maritime dominance. The event invited “hackers” from across the country to engage in real-time problem solving and seeks to carve new innovation pathways for American defense, all at a time when an era of great power competition places such innovation at a higher premium than ever before.
“This competition is all about leveraging talent from all corners of the nation to help solve some of the Navy’s toughest challenges,” said Dr. Robert Liu, data science and analytics senior scientific technical manager for NSWC Corona. “This is a fun and rewarding way to inspire teams to build or brush up on technical skills, but also to drive friendly competition to benefit Navy advancements.”
The Navy considers Hack the Machine to be its premier digital experience. This year’s competition included three tracks – Cyber, Data Science and Additive Manufacturing – each with their own challenges and rules. As was the case for previous challenges, NSWC Corona personnel across all departments and technical codes exhibited interest in the event.
“As a command, part of our mission is to provide transparency to warfighting readiness through data analytics, so it isn’t at all surprising that we have seen a lot of interest in this event from within our ranks,” said Liu. “If there was ever a fun game for us to play, it was this one.”
As part of the challenge, NSWC Corona’s eight-person Data Science team was charged with creating algorithms that support the analysis and modeling of a set of guidelines. Ideally, the algorithms can be applied to support informed decision-making in a scenario mirroring the COVID-19 pandemic, with ideas generated by the contestants directly impacting preparations for future global health emergencies.
“We essentially take a real life problem and put some of our brightest professionals to task to help find solutions,” said Analyst Jaimie Gillette, team lead for Corona’s Data Science team. “It will be interesting to see what comes of all the solutions the Navy is presented with and how we learn from them or put them into action.”
Similarly, NSWC Corona’s four-person Maritime Cyber team had the opportunity to try their hands at hacking commercial maritime electronics systems and equipment in a two-game challenge. The challenge allowed teams to test up-and-coming cybersecurity monitoring tools and encouraged contestants to crash and hack them to expose potential vulnerabilities before the systems go live on warships. In short, participants can directly improve national security systems by testing them against an onslaught of cyberattacks.
In addition to captured lessons learned and intellectual contributions, participation can lead to professional networking opportunities in areas like industrial automation, operational technology security and system of systems design. Contestants could participate with their own pre-formed teams or form new teams following introductions at the start of the challenge.
“Hack the Machine is a fun competition where people can win some good prizes, but it’s also a powerful recruiting tool,” said Liu. “Apart from government employees, think of all the contestants from all over the country – from colleges and universities, companies or individuals on their own – competing to showcase their skills. It’s a great opportunity to open their eyes to new possibilities and show them they can actually do this kind of work for the government.”
Like this year's iteration, government employees have placed in the top ranks throughout multiple iterations of the contest. And, while government employees are ineligible to collect any winnings, Team Corona said it wasn't about the money.
“I think the types of people who sign up for these challenges just like to think outside the box and test their own skills,” said Gillette. “The prize money is certainly a fantastic opportunity for eligible teams, but for us, data science is just what we do. It’s a huge, growing field and something we endeavor to improve at every day. It’s something we realize we must keep getting smarter in moving forward, and our data science team is driven to do just that. That’s really our motivating factor.”
Through their efforts, Hack the Machine contenders provided the Navy with insights and solutions that contribute to the advancement of maritime security, technology integration and solutions to warfighter challenges. For Team Corona – no strangers to warfighter support – it was a chance to brainstorm, learn from a variety of talented teammates and enjoy some friendly competition outside of normal workday parameters.
An awards ceremony announcing the winners was held March 26. While NSWC Corona’s data science team placed third overall in the competition’s Data Science track, they were also the number one Navy team in their respective category.
“For these types of competitions, you’re always working until the last minute, scrambling for the answer,” said Gillette. “It came down to the very end before we could gauge how we performed. But we had a great team, we worked well together and we came up with some really interesting solutions. We all learned something and came out of this a little sharper.”
Members of NSWC Corona’s winning “Not the Corona Virus” data science team were: Jaimie Gillette, Annie Voigt, Rhodora Mae Villanueva, Randy Rodriguez, Cesar Diaz, Carlos Sanchez and Timmy Ngo.
Both Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), under which NSWC Corona serves as a command field activity, and NavalX, the Navy’s workforce super-connector enterprise, were event sponsors. NSWC Corona is home to the Inland Empire Tech Bridge, which, like Hack the Machine, aims to reduce barriers between the Navy and non-traditional partners like startups, small businesses, nonprofits and academia to identify emerging solutions to warfighter challenges.
For more information on Hack the Machine or to learn how you can participate in the next round, visit www.hackthemachine.ai.
NSWC Corona Division has served as the Navy's independent assessment agent since 1964. With more than 3,900 engineers, scientists and support personnel, Sailors and contractors, NSWC Corona is located in Norco, California, with detachments in Fallbrook and Seal Beach and personnel in 14 additional locations. The NAVSEA field activity provides transparency for warfighting readiness through data analytics and assessment, engineers the fleet’s Live Virtual Constructive training environment, and assures the accuracy of measurements as the engineering advisor for the Navy and Marine Corps metrology and calibration programs.