UN Cybersecurity Challenge: Countering Digital Terrorism

@IE University

As cyber-attacks and data breaches become more and more common, companies and organizations have identified the need to invest in sharp, young cyber guardians to protect their digital assets.

The UN organized the Cybersecurity Challenge: Countering Digital Terrorism on December 5–6, 2019 in Vienna.

IE University strongly encourages its students to compete in international challenges like this one, as it allows them to gain exciting, hands-on experience and to network with top minds in the industry. This year, two groups of students from IE University were accepted to participate in the challenge—and one was named runner-up!

To discover the ins and outs of the challenge and get some tips for future competitors, we sat down with two of our participating students, Olivia Glowacka and Camelia Ryane to ask them some questions. Here’s what they had to say.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

O: My name is Olivia Glowacka. I’m Polish-American, and I’m a second-year Bachelor in International Relations student at the IE University Segovia campus. I was a member of the team which won runner-up at the Cybersecurity Challenge. My team was also made up of Cynthia Turbides (second-year Bachelor in International Relations student from the Dominican Republic) and Angelika Tracz (second-year Dual in Laws and International Relations student from Poland/US). Together, we submitted our “Framework For a Seminar Series: Tackling Radicalization Through Prevention Education and Teaching Entrepreneurship Education.”

The idea was based on having a gradual seminar program implemented in the continent of Africa, from primary school to university level. This program would work to establish a counter-narrative that entrepreneurship can serve as a way to obtain money, food, and social acceptance, versus joining a terrorist organization, which attracts vulnerable youth by promising the same things.

C: My name is Camelia Ryane and I’m a fifth-year Business Administration and International Relations student from Morocco. I want to pursue a career in international security and development, and this opportunity was the perfect chance to meet industry professionals and get a first-hand experience in the field. I was teamed up with a Rama Al Ramahi from Jordan and Juan Tomas Sanchez from Spain.

What was the competition like? What were the challenges and objectives? How was your experience participating in a UN event?

O: The challenge focused on coming up with solutions to tackle the problems associated with terrorist use of cybersecurity and new technologies in Africa and South/Southeast Asia. The teams were asked to develop a solution that addresses one or more of the following online terrorist activities: kinetic cyberattacks to critical infrastructure and/or the spread of terrorist content online, online terrorist communications, or digital terrorist financing.

Leading up to the event, teams who wished to participate had to submit a proposal. Out of 60 solutions proposed, 13 teams were selected to participate in the challenge at the UN headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Of those teams, two of them were from IE University (both Segovia and Madrid).

The event, which was a three-day hackathon, was informative and incredible, and people came to the challenge from all around the world: Brazil, Mauritius, Singapore, the US, and more. We were able to work with mentors from the UN and the Austrian Institute of Technology and attend different workshops related to cybersecurity and tackling terrorism. The objective was to develop our counterterrorism proposal as much as possible and then present it to a jury on the last day. It was a very supportive environment and extremely diverse.

Our team actually ended up being named first runner-up! I think we were the youngest team, as there were many PhD students and working professionals, so we were honored to have ranked so well. 

Lastly, I thought it was incredible to be part of the UN for a few days and learn about how different areas of the UN, like the Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNCCT) and Technology Innovation Labs, function in their day-to-day.

C: The competition was a type of hackathon organized by the UNCCT in Vienna. The aim was to develop innovative ways to counter terrorism. The topic my team and I chose for the competition was combating the spread of terrorist content online. The experience was great! I got the opportunity to work with counter-terrorism experts, get valuable feedback on our project, and gain first-hand experience working with the UN. 

How was the preparation process leading up to the event? What was it like developing the proposal?

O: The first step was to form a team and then come up with a cyberterrorism solution that revolved around technology. The solution had to be written and submitted on the UN’s Unite Ideas platform. I had worked on my own travel app startup while in high school, took part in numerous high-school-level entrepreneurship programs, and worked for an international accelerator based in Chicago, so I always considered entrepreneurship a way to solve basically any type of issue. Therefore, I decided to build an idea based on entrepreneurship education among the youth. For this concept, my team did a lot of research about social entrepreneurship and youth entrepreneurship programs around the world to use as case studies.

In all honesty, we didn’t prepare much between the announcement that we were selected for the hackathon and arriving in Vienna. However, when we were in Vienna we spent entire days speaking to mentors, conducting research, making our idea as realistic and achievable as possible, and slightly adjusting the concept.

C: The first thing on the list was to form a good team. We had a very diverse background on our team, which allowed us to build on each other’s competencies and skills. Second, it was crucial to brainstorm about the idea; a lot of research was required to understand what the problem is, what has been done, and how you can realistically find valuable solutions to the issue. We then prepared a document presenting our proposal. We had the chance to work on it with experts and improve it during the competition. Then we pitched it!

What do you think about the future of cyberterrorism? What were the solutions presented at the UN Cybersecurity Challenge?

O: I arrived at the event knowing virtually nothing about cyberterrorism, and left with a deep interest in the field. Now, security and cybersecurity are areas that I am considering going into post-graduation. Before, I wanted to pursue venture development, but this challenge taught me that there are many opportunities to bring innovation and my passion for entrepreneurship to governance and the security sector.

Next spring, I will be completing my exchange at IDC Herzliya in Israel, so this area will be extremely relevant since innovation in the security sector is so present in the Middle East. Some of the other solutions that were presented included: a policy brief that outlined online community policing, a live plug-and-play forensics tool, and community-based cyberterrorism content filtering and censorship.

C: Cyberterrorism is a pressing threat in this century. Governments and private companies are increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks, whether it be kinetic attacks or the destruction of private property by non-state actors. It is an extremely challenging threat due to the difficulty of attributing such attacks to one group or actor. There were very innovative and interesting solutions proposed by the other teams, ranging from nuclear safety to cryptocurrencies.

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What tips would you give to future competitors? What do you think is the key to success?

O: I think the main key to success is to take advantage of the mentors as much as possible. They are experts in their field and their objective is to help you develop your solution. Secondly, try to make your idea as viable in real life as you can. Think about what specific institutions, partners, and resources would be needed to make your concept come to fruition.

Next, utilize the business foundations that IE University has taught you. Many of the groups came from scientific or academic backgrounds. I noticed that me and Camelia’s team really discussed our solutions within a business-plan structure, which made it easier to pitch to the jury, selling them on the fact that our ideas could be useful and realistically implemented.

Lastly, make sure you network with the people around you. I was able to connect with the other teams who came from all over the world, and now my LinkedIn connections include UN employees!

C: The key to success is divergent thinking. While you might not have the technical knowledge per se, you might still come up with a very strong proposal to solve a challenging problem that will be faced by every government or private entity in the near future.

IE University pushes its students to participate in challenges like this one, as entrepreneurship and hands-on learning is at the core of our methodology. We encourage current and future students to compete in the UN challenges and hackathons to come!