The Department of Veterans Affairs Cyber Security Operations Center (VA-CSOC) team recently demonstrated the Department’s cybersecurity prowess in the Federal Cyber Fire Puzzle Challenge, which was sponsored by the Department of Energy integrated Joint Cybersecurity Coordination Center. The VA-CSOC team, which included Ashraf Aziz, Matthew Benton, James Brackett, Allen Butler, Jesse Hutchinson, Alvin Nham, Khristopher Tolbert, and Sean Thompson, placed second after competing against 14 other teams representing federal and military agencies, including the Army, the Navy, and the Department of Homeland Security. The CSOC team’s achievement in the competition underscored VA’s recognized role as a cybersecurity leader among peer agencies.
The competition challenged teams’ critical thinking on a variety of cybersecurity areas, including “No Code,” steganography, digital forensics, and code breaking. One example puzzle included a simple music file with no instructions. After careful deliberation, the team managed to deconstruct the file and found a secret message hidden inside a series of folders with a text file and the answer. Hiding files is a common hacking technique that allows threats to slip through filters undetected, so puzzles like this help train staff to recognize these types of attacks.
The eight-person VA-CSOC team, composed of federal and contract staff, worked together to solve these multi-disciplinary puzzles. Sean Thompson, VA-CSOC team leader, emphasized that creative and collaborative problem solving was key because no single team member knew everything necessary to complete each challenge. “It takes a lot of different layers and skills for problem solving,” said Mr. Thompson.
“CSOC’s second place finish shows that VA is one of the elite cybersecurity teams in the government, ensuring that Veterans’ data is safe and secure,” said Mr. Cunningham, VA’s Chief Information Security Officer.
The team worked remotely in shifts to tackle the puzzles. As team members rotated, they handed off crucial information—echoing how these and other cybersecurity professionals also handle issues in the real world. As Mr. Thompson explained, “Handing off information is a critical skill in-and-of-itself.”
The team’s success in the competition demonstrates the organization’s ongoing commitment to securing VA’s systems and Veterans’ data.
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