Cyber Takes Flight: My Experience Competing in the Atlantic Council’s Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge!

Ainsley Katz, member of the 2019 winning team, recaps the competition and attending DEF CON.


Ainsley Katz

8/12/20193 min read

If someone asked me about my post-grad plans in January, I wouldn’t in my wildest dreams have envisioned flying an F-35 in Las Vegas or working at the U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission. In January, I was studying for my MPhil in International Relations and Politics at Cambridge University, and my understanding of all things cyber was almost as rudimentary as binary code flying around in space. All this was prior to participating in the Atlantic Council’s Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge.

Though I had no prior cyber experience and enough on my plate with my Master’s coursework and dissertation, when I learned of the Atlantic Council’s Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge, I felt strangely compelled to participate.

Just as mysterious was the gravity by which a hodgepodge collection of three fellow MPhil students and myself coalesced, received sponsorship from Cambridge's Academic Centre of Excellence in Cyber Security Research (ACECSR), and found a team coach in ACE-CSR member Dr. Jat Singh. However it happened, suddenly — and seemingly ex nihilo — team CamPhishing was born.

Ainsley Katz. CamPhishing. University of Cambridge winning team 2019

Ainsley Katz headshot
Ainsley Katz headshot

Competing in the Cyber 9/12 Challenge was one of the most unique, valuable, and enjoyable highlights of my Cambridge experience. The Challenge sees UK university teams take on the role of senior government advisors tasked with assisting Ministers in responding to an evolving cyber attack. Over two days, the scenario evolves through three rounds with a grand finale in front of senior UK cyber security experts.

Winning the Cyber 9/12 Challenge was as incredible as competing. For the First Place Prize, CamPhishing was generously sponsored by Rapid7 to attend the huge cybersecurity conference, DEF CON, in Las Vegas. Over the course of the conference I heard the likes of Representative Jim Langevin, Jane Harman, and Rapid7’s own Jen Ellis discuss Congressional efforts to address evolving cyber issues.

I also learned about the current challenges faced by Tor, heard Bruce Schneier’s clarion call for greater technologist involvement in policymaking, and listened to the White House’s Joshua Steinman discuss the elimination of the Cybersecurity Coordinator role on the U.S. National Security Council. Oh, and did I mention I flew an F-35? Granted, it was an F-35 flight simulator in the DEF CON Aviation Village and my flight skills weren’t at all up to the snuff of an Air Force pilot, but it was nonetheless quite the experience.

CamPhishing team photo. From left: Gary Dreyer, Ainsley Katz, Tomass Pildegovics, Jamie MacColl

CamPhishing at the UK Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge
CamPhishing at the UK Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge

All in all, the Atlantic Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge certainly succeeded in interesting me to work in cyber.

Since DEF CON, I have begun working as a Cyber Strategy and Policy Analyst with the U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission. The Cyber 9/12 Challenge prepared me to think critically about proportional and viable policy options when dealing with cyber attacks while DEF CON not only taught me vital practical and technical topics in cybersecurity, but also introduced me to some of the most impressive and interesting individuals working on cyber issues today.

For these reasons and more, I wholeheartedly recommend the Cyber 9/12 Challenge to students, regardless of their prior experience (or lack thereof) in all things cyber.

Three fifths of CamPhishing. From left: Tomass Pildegovics, Ainsley Katz, Jat Singh

CamPhishing at the UK Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge
CamPhishing at the UK Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge