“Pwned!” First-generation undergrad hacks trucks, nabs prize at CyberTruck Challenge

Luis Rodriguez and his competition prizes

Luis Rodriguez had never broken into a truck until this summer. It was worth it. The first-generation undergraduate walked away from this year’s CyberTruck Challenge with an award for successfully hacking a truck’s onboard computer as well as a new interest in cybersecurity.

When Rodriguez, who is from Fort Collins, first visited CSU, it was love at first sight. He initially decided to major in computer science because he liked video games. “I like to solve problems, and I like puzzles,” he said. “It can take a while to reach the answer, but when you get there, you feel great.” He discovered that problem solving in computer science applies to far more than video games.

Hacking with experts

In June, Rodriguez and three other Colorado State University computer science students, graduate student Hossein Shirazi and undergraduates Jake Walker and Wenrui Ma, took their skills on the road to the CyberTruck Challenge held in Michigan and sponsored by the Michigan Defense Center, CALSTAR and the National Motor Freight Traffic Association.

This weeklong, immersive event split up the CSU students among teams formed around areas of interest. Rodriguez chose the software engineering team led by a reverse software engineer from a cybersecurity consulting company, a professional hacker. Working alongside experts from industry, research and government – the best trainers and security teams in the world – participants tackled hands-on cybersecurity challenges for the heavy truck industry. They tested their skills on real-world vehicles and systems, some so new they haven’t even hit the road yet.

Rodriguez’s team was given the challenge to hack and disable a state-of-the-art telematics unit, a computer that monitors and communicates vehicle information. They did exactly that. Of approximately 50 participants, Rodriguez was one of only four who received awards. For successfully “pwning” (or defeating) the device he was working on, he was awarded a small toy pony and a Raspberry Pi Zero W to fuel his enthusiasm for technology. “I plan on returning as a seasoned hacker to “pwn” the new trucks next year,” he said.

Why hack a truck?

Today’s vehicles are packed with sophisticated computer systems that control mechanical functions, communications and much more. They are basically moving computer networks. Just like passenger planes or military vehicles, these trucks pose a danger if their computer systems are hijacked. Factor in connected and autonomous vehicles, and the demand for transportation cybersecurity is booming. The annual CyberTruck Challenge aims to meet this demand by developing a next-generation workforce skilled in the heavy vehicle cyber domain. The national event began in 2017 and grew to triple the number of trucks this year. In 2017 computer science undergraduate Jake Walker, who competed again this year, and graduate student Subhojeet Mukherjee stole the show.

Exploring cybersecurity

Rodriguez does more than hack trucks. He’s a busy guy. He spent the past four years working in the ethnic studies department, and this fall he will be the first in his family to receive a four-year degree. Next he is considering graduate studies, possibly in cybersecurity. And his timing is good. In February 2017 the National Science Foundation established a new NSF IUCRC Center for Cybersecurity Analytics and Automation led by College of Natural Sciences Computer Science Professor Indrakshi Ray, who also mentors the four students on this year’s CyberTruck Challenge team. “We are grateful to the National Science Foundation for support on heavy vehicle security research and their help establishing the center,” Ray said. In July, the state of Colorado gave CSU $1.2 million to bolster cybersecurity education.

Even though they haven’t graduated yet, Rodriguez and his classmates have already found new opportunities through computer science. In four years at CSU, Rodriguez has learned computer science – but more than that – he has learned the value of tenacity. He encourages his fellow students: “there will be bumps in the road, but never give up, regardless of the situation you come from.”