Three young men wearing black T-shirts working on computers in a busy hall. They are participating in a cybersecurity challenge.
Members of Team Ireland from the 2019 ECSC. Image: Zero Days Security

Meet the students representing Ireland in ‘the Eurovision of cybersecurity’

16 Sep 2021

This year, Team Ireland will be travelling to Prague to compete in the annual pan-European cybersecurity challenge.

Every year, students from all over Europe take part in the European Cyber Security Challenge (ECSC), an annual event that brings teams together to compete in cybersecurity challenges.

This year’s event will take place in Prague at the end of September and will see young people from across Europe compete.

Click here to check out the top sci-tech employers hiring right now.

Team Ireland is made up of 10 students under the age of 26 and the team is managed by Mark Lane, a senior lecturer at TU Dublin.

“Our participation came about from ZeroDays CTF, which is Ireland’s premier cybersecurity challenge and is the national competition for college students and industry professionals,” Lane told Siliconrepublic.com.

“The ECSC finals take place over four days, with a day for set-up and testing and a final day for social events and awards. In between, teams compete over two days across a range of cybersecurity skills areas including cryptography, web application security, network security, digital forensics, reverse engineering, mobile security etc,” said Lane.

“There is also a section on soft skills where one of the team makes a presentation to a jury on one of the challenges solved. Teams consist of 10 players and all are aged 25 and under, with at least five of them aged 20 and under. Proper rock ’n’ roll kids of cybersecurity.”

‘Once you get started, you’re hooked’

22-year-old Daniel Cahill is one of those team members, having recently graduated from TU Dublin and joining Team Ireland for the second time.

“I always had an interest in getting a better understanding of how things worked behind the scenes with computers. I originally went to college for computer science, where I learned to program. While this was interesting to me, I learned there is a course for cybersecurity. During my second year at college, I joined the hacker society in my college and competed in my first ever capture the flag (CTF) competition.”

From there, Cahill attended more CTF competitions, including one run by ZeroDays, which is how he learned about the ECSC. “It sounded really exciting, so I was immediately interested.”

At 19 years old, Cillian Collins is the youngest member of Team Ireland this year. “I’ve been interested in programming for years and used to make a lot of websites. I wanted to make sure my own websites were secure, so I began looking into website security,” he said.

“Cybersecurity is full of challenges and it can actually be a lot of fun trying to solve them. It’s one of those things where it’s hard to get into, but once you get started, you’re hooked!”

Collins read an article about the ECSC last year and had seen a lot of chatter about it on social media from those working in cybersecurity.

“I’d heard about the competition before but didn’t think I’d be able to get on the team for Ireland. Another member of the team told me that they were holding a CTF competition to determine who would get on for 2021, so I decided to try it out for the experience and to see how I’d do.”

Ireland has competed several times over the last number of years. As one of the smaller countries in the competition, Lane said the team faces powerhouses with larger populations and bigger budgets.

However, he believes that Ireland’s prowess as a tech and cybersecurity hub means Team Ireland has managed to tap into some natural talent and punch well above its weight.

“We like to think of the ECSC as the Eurovision of cybersecurity,” he said. “Johnny Logan is our hero and we use him as inspiration to show what Ireland can achieve. Hold Me Now is our unofficial theme tune.”

‘It’s great to have the opportunity to spend some time with people who have the same interests’
– CILLIAN COLLINS

Despite the powerhouse of talent, he added that Team Ireland is run entirely by volunteers and resources can be an issue.

“We don’t currently receive any support or funding from the Government, and we rely totally on or amazing sponsors and partners. This year we have had fantastic support from Edgescan, ReliaQuest, HP Enterprise, CommSec, BH Consulting, OneLogin, TU Dublin and BearingPoint and we literally would not be able to participate without their support.”

Covid-19 has also hindered preparations for the team, which has switched online. “However, we feel we still have our strongest and most diverse team yet with representation from many Irish universities and a good mix of experienced players and new blood,” said Lane.

“Two of our squad, Emmet [Leahy] and Daniel [Cahill] are part of the European squad for the inaugural International Cyber Security Challenge (ICSC), which is due to take place in Athens in December.”

The benefits of cybersecurity competitions

The aim of the ECSC is to identify and bring together young cyber talent from around Europe and encourage students to pursue careers in cybersecurity through collaboration and friendly relations between nations.

“For our players, the competition is an opportunity to learn new skills, work as part of a team, and an opportunity to travel and meet people from other countries and cultures. We see a lot of friendships and networks come out of the competition which will only get stronger as the competitions continue to evolve and grow,” said Lane.

Ahead of his first time competing, Collins said it’s a great opportunity to network with people who have similar interests. “There’s going to be 22 different countries across Europe competing in this challenge and it’ll be great to see where we can rank,” he said. “The cybersecurity community is relatively small, so it’s great to have the opportunity to spend some time with people who have the same interests.”

Cahill added that as well as the networking side of it, competitions like the ECSC bring greater attention to the topic of cybersecurity.

“Also, the teamwork side of it, getting to work as a team on a problem can open you to so many things you might have missed before, everyone has a different approach to the problems, a lot can be learned from just working with others and picking up on things you didn’t know before or you might have missed had you not been working as a team.”

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

Loading now, one moment please! Loading