Cyber Security Challenge Masterclass 2015

In probably the shortest time ever between this post and the last one, it’s time to look back on the Cyber Security Challenge Masterclass that happened last week.

On the morning of the 11th, a few hours before were going to arrive at the hotel for introductions etc ahead of the main competition on the Thursday, I was asked if I wanted to appear on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. So I hopped on an earlier train and arrived at HMS Belfast. The organisers were setting up all the networks etc. for the next day of competitions so with some not very convincing acting we pretended to save London from a major attack (the video is here for those who are interested).

Thoughtfully looking into a screen

Thoughtfully looking into a screen

After a quick check-in in an amazing hotel just by tower bridge, we were off to the BT centre by St Paul’s. Here we had ‘networking’ and talks, including one by some school children about the new computer science GCSEs. The lasting memory of that night though is the lack of proper food!


Teamwork or something

Thursday 12th started early, however these early starts were rewarded with some great sunrises. After some short health and safety and introductory talks we were sat on our tables with our laptops and told to map out the network. The competition structure was a combination of ‘stop them’ and ‘capture the flag’, however there were also negative flags. Each team was given an FTP server where they could share information but it also contained password protected zip files, most of which were released to us over the course of the competition. During this time we found a flag (an empty file with the file name CSC_FlAG_xxxxx where xxxxx was a number that is unique to the flag) in one of the zip files. We found out much later that this was a negative flag, the only one that any team found! However, soon after that we were given access to one that gave us a network map of the ship and some network traffic captures, one outside the network as a pcap and one inside as a netflow. This told us that the network had a subnet that contained a mail server, a DNS server and a sys log server. The syslog server had a PPoE connection to ‘gunnery’ where the gun controls were located.

Looking very sheepish in front of the panel

Quite a lot of the challenge consisted of persuading the people who set the challenge from GCHQ to give us access to more and more servers based on the evidence provided in some network packet snapshots that showed SSH traffic leaving for the internet. We had to show both the internal netflow records pcap file agreed with each other. Having worked out the route onto the mail server and then the syslog server we started to tackle the gunnery server. My main role during the latter part of the day (when I’d lost my voice!) was to trace the hacker that had infected the systems. We knew that they had downloaded some prefabbed exploit from pastebin and I used that to track him back to his flat, which was good fun. The final part of the day was being put up against people from CERT UK, GCHQ, NCA, Bank of England and others in a huge grilling that was both very difficult and also one of the most rewarding parts of the whole day. This really shows that it’s not just technical skills that are put to the test but ‘softer’ skills also. That night there was a bar aboard the ship, however it turns out that the organisers staffing the bar where in fact there to try and catch people leaking secrets! After that it was right back to the hotel, early start the next day!

An interesting break from the screens!

An interesting break from the screens!

On the 13th we arrived bright and early to continue our challenge. After a quick brief we were led outside for a ‘networking’. However, it turned out the insider was part of the challenge. Cue the NCA and PGI turning up on a speedboat arresting him, which was very funny. Back inside and our team was feeling a bit depressed as we were bottom of the flag leaderboard and then we were turfed out for our SCADA challenge. This was run by Airbus Group and involved an hour try and break through a series of servers controlling a smart grid, smart factory and a water purification plant. The setup was very realistic (abet with some glaring vulnerabilities that you would hope wouldn’t find in the real world!) and although we didn’t stop any of the plants working we were very close to the water plant (finally, my Windows knowledge came in use towards the end of the last day!). Next we had our second grilling by the panel, this time it went much better! Pretty much straight after that it was all over and we retired to the hotel while the assessors made their judgements.

That evening at the hotel was the final awards dinner, a more formal event and the culmination of the years activities. Various awards were given out including a clean sweep for overall winner, runner up, best team and best SCADA challenge for team HMS Belfast. Lots of interesting people were met and prizes dished out, everyone was invited to GCHQ in May and I received an invitation to an IAAC meeting and a CompTIA Security+ voucher! A late night was then had in the hotel bar…

All in all the experience was very rewarding and well worth doing, I hope this provides a very brief overview of what masterclass is like. Hopefully I’ll be doing something similar at the next masterclass in November!

New semester, many things have happened

This blog is starting to look at little neglected, so hopefully this post will bring it back up to date!

Hmmm... Still work to do here

Hmmm… Still work to do here

After a great time back at home over Christmas, it was all go in January with four final exams for my semester 1 modules. After revising hard the results finally came out last week, with firsts in everything but Foundations of Computer Science where I got a 2:1. For the difficulty of the module though I’m very pleased with these results! Semester 2 is a complete change academically, with Foundations being replaced with statistics for social scientists – which is not really aimed at those with A level maths etc. However, I am now also doing social theory, something I’ve never experienced  before but so far it’s been enjoyable. Along with that I have web design, which is no problem and programming II which is very interesting. As it is suddenly coursework season, this week I started the first assignment, an interactive factual explorer, progress has been slow but something is not quite right:

However, it has meant an excuse to listen to this gem by Jonathan Coulton.

Away from academic pursuits, I’ve managed to secure an internship at Morgan Stanley in Canary Wharf. I’m not sure of which exact team I’ll be working in yet but I am really looking forward to it. The interview process was tough (a whole day of interviews, group projects and general scrutiny) but very enjoyable. Not too many internships take first years so I must have done something right!

B8Ic5f2IMAAQy7wA few weeks ago I awoke to an email from Cyber Security Challenge UK inviting me to a face to face cyber security competition at QinetiQ in Farnborough. I’ve entered a few of their online competitions but never quite done well enough to get through to the face to faces before, so it was a bit of surprise. However, I was quick to take it up and really enjoyed the weekend there. Our team had to penetration test a corporate network in the morning, followed by malware anaylsis in the afternoon. Apparently we were quite good as our team won the prizes, and all of us were invited through to the ‘masterclass’ final in March. Now this isn’t just be being Britishly modest, but I’m really not that good at cyber security so the fact I’m in the top 42 amateur cyber security people in the UK is very worrying. However, partly due to me being the youngest in the competition (at least at our f2f) I’ve had quite a lot of media interest. If you Google ‘Mark Cole cyber security’ you get a few websites reporting on me and various newspapers have interviewed me also. Finally today I have heard some interest for a national TV appearance, stay tuned!11001628_910442578977419_8072080935719228612_o (1)

Of course, all this is not good for my ego 🙂 Fortunately I’ve really settled into my Church in Southampton, Highfield. Last weekend it was the student weekend away, a great place to take time out and re-evaluate my priorities at Southampton. I have a renewed sense that God wants to use my skills to reach those around me, it’s exciting finding out how.


Finally, last week several friends from home went to the Isle of Wight for a night, a great opportunity to mess around and catch up some cool people (and avoid work). Talking of work, I really should start that web design report now..

First few weeks…

I intend to keep this blog updated more than the old site here, so to start with is a brief overview at my first weeks here in sunny (haha) Southampton.

My course is a novel and new one, Web Science (Computer Science) BSc (hons). No one has yet graduated in this course, it’s only the second year that it has run.

Web science at Southampton

Web science at Southampton (taken from

Now you may be wondering what on earth is web science? Or why on earth doesn’t he just do comp sci, it has it in the name right?! Firstly, I do quite a lot of computer science, this semester I’m doing Programming I and Foundations of computer science. These are the main comp sci modules that you would do if doing straight computer science (the others being professional development and systems). However, my other two modules are Information, Technology and Social Change (yes I had to look that up) and Principles of Microeconomics. The first is one of very few Web Science  modules (for all 6 of us) that introduces some of the issues and areas of the study on the web (similar to the free, not the £9,000 I pay, MOOC that Southampton has just started running for the 3rd time The most novel thing here is the sociology as I’ve never studied it before (coming from Maths, Physics and Economics). This has been excellently taught so far by Professor Susan Halford who is also a director of the web science institute here in Southampton. Other topics include the history of the web and precursors to the web. Principles of Microeconomics is an optional module (like Foundations of Computer Science) that is taken with all the economics/accounting and finance/almost everything students, in fact, I’m the only web scientist who is taking it. The reason I chose it is mainly due to me enjoying economics at A Level (my best grade is in economics). Fun fact, I was at one point thinking about doing Computer Science with/and Economics until I realised of the 3 or 4 places in the UK that did it, I didn’t want to go to. So it’s nice to do something a bit less computer based. The core Programming I and Foundations of Computer Science are very much as you would expect. Programming I is a fast paced introduction to Java in a very object-orientated way, so if you are about to start studying that here I recommend trying some programming. It’s only week 3 but we are already onto constructors and encapsulation so if you’ve never programmed before you’ll have to spend a lot of time on it. Foundations of comp sci is very maths heavy, so further maths (even only at AS like me) will really help with the matrices etc. If you haven’t done it then look up matrices and matrix multiplication before you get here, it’ll really help. The first section is linear algebra (Gaussian Elimination, finding inverses of matrices etc.) and the second is logic and sets. More info on those to come as I learn it.

One question I’ve skipped above is ‘What is web science?’, that I know many of you will be asking. Web science is incredibly new (in terms of an academic field) proposed by Tim Berners-Lee and other (such as Professor Dame Wendy Hall) to study the effects of the web on society (and society’s effect on the web). In this paper ( it’s slightly technical in places but worth a read) they set out plans for a new area of study around issues to do with the web. The web is only 25 years old but has massively changed our world, but how did this network for physicists change the world? At Southampton there are 80 post docs doing reasearch on such topics. Non of which have web science undergraduates (my course is only 2 years old and is the first in the world). They are taken from both computer science and the social sciences, hence the interdisciplinary approach to web science. So it’s an interesting area with lots of big names, and it let’s me choose more optional modules than I would otherwise and from all over the place (I could be doing politics, sociology or criminology modules at the moment).

The infamous maths tower

The infamous maths tower taken from

Moving from the academic, Southampton has been a really good uni to study at so far. The reputation is excellent, the campus is pleasant (apart from a few notable concrete monoliths) and the people are great. Connaught where I live is pretty good, some of the fittings are a bit dated and the food could be better (but boy, it could be worse,  cooking?!). But, a new chair is coming very soon! Yay! Most importantly though the people are friendly and the beer at the bar is cheap. We’ve got a common room with ping pong tables, a computer room and a snooker room. The latter, though, is awful. The felt on the table is ripped, there are no tips on the snooker cues and the balls have chunks missing. Not only that but you have to walk all the way to Monte reception to book at slot, booking! It’s already terrible.

The CU here is great, a real positive (not that there are many negitives, maybe £2.50 for a washing machine!). The main meetings are on Friday nights, which can clash with some other events. Churches in Southampton are excellent so far, the CU is pretty good in organising group to go along (a so-called ‘Church Crawl’) to help you find one that you feel called to.

Anyway, this is a long post. I can’t promise all of these posts will be this long but I hope it’s not too boring and gives you an overview of my experience here.

New blog

I’ve redone my blog! (about time). Soon I’ll be at Soton studying hard, so there may or may not be many posts on here.