“You’re probably thinking cyber security, sorry to confuse you but we don’t do that here. A computer hacker is any skilled computer expert who uses their technical knowledge to overcome a problem.”
Spartan Hackers, computer science and engineering club
Cybersecurity is a concern for many, but while some are still navigating its complexities, a few have mastered its potential for danger. With rising tensions between Ukraine and Russia, coding technology has only been adding to the conflict.
Recently, Ukraine has been put in an alarming position by Russia’s cyberattacks. While trying to fight off hackers with their own cyber team, Ukraine and many other countries have recognized the power of cyberwar in these present complications.
For Michigan State University student hackers, these issues have highlighted the importance of their work in computer science and engineering.
Many students took to MSU’s annual SpartaHack event to present their coding to better the current situation for Ukrainians. At SpartaHack, students have a collective of 36 hours to competitively build a project with their knowledge of coding. For most hackers, this meant not sleeping for more than an hour.
Organizer and Co-Director of SpartaHack Morgan Sandler said SpartaHack covers larger social issues, like what’s going on in Ukraine.
“Think of it as a make-athon. Just build whatever you want within 36 hours, and we add prizes as a nice little monetary incentive — but the whole concept of SpartaHack is we want to solve these large issues in society. That could be healthcare, social good, that could be education,” said Sandler. “There’s these large issues, and we can use technology to solve those issues.”
President of Spartan Hackers Michael Umanskiy said although this event was serious, it was still meant to be a learning experience.
“Spartan Hackers originally was designed to attend hackathons, so this event is our pinnacle event. What we can’t preach enough is that whenever we hear a student, ‘oh I wish I knew how to build an app, I wish I knew how to build a website’, that’s what we offer,” said Umanskiy. “We like to teach students — we want to spread the information. That’s a big quality of computer science. All you have to do is drink from it.”
Vice-President of Spartan Hackers Hemkesh Agrawal, agreed.
“It’s learning something new. For example, when I was in my third hackathon, I made a cryptocurrency. I did not know how to make cryptocurrency before,” said Agrawal. We were not even sure if we would make it, but by the 40th hour we figured out a way to make a small crypto coin. We could actually trade it—it was worth zero dollars because it was free, but it was a real cryptocurrency.”
Winning second place at this year’s SpartaHack, Agrawal and Umanskiy took inspiration from Ukraine. With Umanskiy’s mother being from Russia and his father from Ukraine, he said this project was fitting for what he had been hearing from them.
“Right when the war started, I opened up Twitter every morning. It was almost like a morning ritual where I’d check the news, check everything that was going on in Ukraine and always check in with my friends and family—see how they’re doing because you never know,” said Umanskiy. “I was on the phone with an uncle of mine, and you could hear the bombs going off in the background. He was like ‘oh yeah they’re just bombing the hospital, not us’ so it was terrifying. Like wait, they’re bombing the hospital and he’s like ‘yeah they’ve been bombing for the past 30 minutes’ and it’s kinda intense to live in that environment.”
Agrawal and Umanskiy’s project consisted of an app-based program that visually presented how well certain areas of Ukraine were doing based on tweets.
“We basically consolidated all the data because the data is spread everywhere. There’s news, there’s Twitter, but it’s hard to find the particular data that you want and it’s all cluttered in places. So now we combined that all into one place so you can see a lot of visuals, like what’s happening, what’s going on, in a few seconds,” said Agrawal.
Umanskiy highlighted the importance of this.
“So if you’re going through Twitter you’re probably going to see a lot of unsightly things. There are war crimes, there’s gore, there are things that you don’t really want to see in your day-to-day things,” said Umanskiy. So I think another benefit of our app was the fact that we would filter that out, and you’d just have the raw information—the general idea.”
Another team of students who won third place showed their support for Ukrainian families by making a website. The website was built to be able to connect families who had been split up in the chaos.
Neil Fraylick a senior at Lawrence Technological University, said MSU’s SpartaHack was his 23rd hackathon but it meant a lot more to him than others.
“I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be a Ukrainian refugee having my family split up. So in the states, the best thing that I can do to support them is use my engineering and computer science skills to help those people who are in need,” said Fraylick. “Being able to support them through software and create a way for them to connect with their families is extremely important.
Evelyn Herrmann the external designer for Fraylick’s team said although these were helpful resources, there needs to be a way to get them in use.
“Even if there are great resources, it’s hard to know that they’re there, so something that America can do is make sure those resources are being properly communicated to Ukrainians, especially if their world’s falling apart,” said Herrmann. “It’s cool that we have this website, but how are they going to have access to the website?”
- Cybersecurity – the state of being protected against the criminal or unauthorized use of electronic data, or the measures taken to achieve this (Oxford Languages)
- Phishing Scam – the practice of tricking Internet users (as through the use of deceptive email messages or websites) into revealing personal or confidential information which can then be used illicitly (Merriam-Webster)
- Malware – software that is specifically designed to disrupt, damage, or gain unauthorized access to a computer system (Oxford Languages)
- Denial of Service (DoS) – an interruption in an authorized user’s access to a computer network, typically one caused with malicious intent (Oxford Languages)
- Zero-day – deriving from or relating to a previously unknown vulnerability to attack in some software (Oxford Languages)
- Botnet – a network of computers that have been linked together by malware (Merriam-Webster)
- Black-Hat Hacker – a hacker who infiltrates a computer system for malicious purposes (Merriam-Webster)
This has become a concern for many of the students who attended SpartaHack, and with this being an issue that relates to their future work, many had something to say about cybersecurity and its importance.
Keshav Babu, an MSU freshman majoring in computer engineering spoke the hard truth.
AUDIO FILE OF KESHAV BABU 5:38-6:44
Sandler said his experience with black-hat hacking has been scarce, but it is still prominent.
“Where there is a way to use something for good, there is always a way to use something for bad. That’s not SpartaHack’s focus—we always want to focus on the good in just connecting people,” said Sadler.
Agrawal had the same approach.
“Cyber security is very important. Especially with everything being connected to internet, you really have to focus on security,” said Agrawal. “That all needs to be very secure, so we definitely need white-hat hackers—cyber security— to manage all this cool stuff that we build.”
SpartaHack attendee Adrian Brooks said after seeing the Ukrainian issue in cyber security, he thought it should motivate other countries.
“It used to kinda be an afterthought, and it was actually way easier in the past. But now governments, especially America, are starting to notice their security is kinda out of date,” said Brooks. “There’s really no protection against hacking except for more people, more security, but things will always be broken, things will always have a way in. You can’t make perfect code.”
Umanskiy showed concern for Ukraine.
“By attacking the infrastructure it can cause damage to civilians and deny essential needs. Right now in Ukraine I believe a lot of cyber-attacks are happening in terms of shutting down power, shutting down health care systems, client information, and looking up certain medical websites — that is denying healthcare to civilians who are there,” said Umanskiy.
Because of these concerns, Umanskiy said there is important work that goes into this cyber protection.
“One of the biggest things Ukrainian programmers are doing is trying to protect their infrastructure,” said Umanskiy. “Considering Russia doesn’t have a lot of remorse for bombing hospitals, they won’t have a lot of remorse with removing hospital systems off services. Protecting that infrastructure is vital. So as computer science majors, finding ways of protecting information, protecting systems against attackers is a valuable asset.”
AUDIO FILE UMANSKIY 4:20
Agrawal said computer science majors need to step up to the plate.
Computers are everywhere now. Everyone almost has internet these days. So us CSE majors, it’s our job to make sure everyone knows what’s going on,” said Agrawal. “We are spreading actual news, not fake news. Everyone depends on computers these days.”
As far as protecting yourself, Umanskiy had great advice.
“It’s interesting getting both viewpoints because I have family from both countries as well. Russia has always been trying to sway public opinion, you know it’s the internet, anybody can post their opinion,” said Umanskiy. “Social engineering is considered 90% of cyber security.”
How to Protect Yourself – Umanskiy
- “Update your windows. There are new mistakes in the code found every day.”
- “Avoid the phishing scams.”
- “Good password is always helpful. The more variety of letters and characters that you use, the harder it is—the longer the better.”
- “It’s hard to get hacked. You just have to be aware that it is a possibility, and try to avoid it.”
With that being said, the motivation on MSU’s campus to be in support of Ukraine’s cyber team is prevalent. In hopes of this conflict clearing soon, Umanskiy made one thing very clear.
“The most vulnerable part of a computer isn’t the computer itself, but the people who use the computer.”