National Student Hackathon Showcases Innovative Proposals to Thwart Cyberattacks and Information Operations

| March 30, 2018

“Honey bots” that counter malicious bots. An app called Sanity Check. Cyber Security Bonds. And technology that breaks the grip of online echo chambers. Those are just some of the ideas that college students from around the country presented Thursday in Cambridge as part of the Defending Digital Democracy Project’s (D3P) first-ever Information Operations Technical and Policy Hackathon.

Nine teams of finalists presented their ideas to a team of judges, including former Secretary of Defense and Belfer Center Director Ash Carter and former Pentagon “cyber czar” and current D3P Director and Belfer Center Co-Director Eric Rosenbach.

“This is the issue of our time,” said Carter, referring to the challenges posed by malicious misinformation. “There’s a crying need for good ideas.” What we need to enlist, he said, is “the best thinking by good people. There’s plenty of bad ingenuity at work and we need to overpower that with good ingenuity.”

That good ingenuity was on full display as students from Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, Georgetown, Tufts, Georgia Tech, and other leading universities made their pitches in the ballroom of The Charles Hotel. The hackathon presentations were the culmination of a three-day D3P conference dedicated to fortifying election security and digital democracy. Several state election officials, who had convened earlier in the week for a series of training exercises, stayed to hear the student proposals.

    D3P Hackathon

    Winnona DeSombre and Gabriella Roncone, two students from Tufts University, claimed the grand prize of $10,000 for their development of Sanity Check, an app that utilizes natural language processing, bot detection, source greylisting, risk rules, and reverse image searching to identify information operations over social media, as well as suspicious unverifiable information. Sanity Check can be appended to any social media platform and incorporated into default Google Chrome browsing. By understanding what constitutes risky behavior in an automated way, DeSombre and Roncone explained, the app can output good threat intelligence.

    “I’m so proud of these students,” said Rosenbach, who organized the hackathon. “From big data and machine learning to psychology and financial markets, these policy and tech entrepreneurs combined insights from across disciplines to craft some truly innovative ideas to fight back against the enemies of digital democracy.”

    The Winners:

    Minimum viable concept category
        •    First place: Winnona DeSombre and Gabriella Roncone (Tufts University) – $10,000

        •    Second place: Samuel Liu (Harvard College) and Andres Gvirtz (Clark University) – $2,000

    Policy category
        •    First place: Karim Farhat and Karl Grindal (Georgia Institute of Technology) – $5,000

        •    Second place: Nathan Bruschi (Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School) – $2,000

        •    Third place: Kellen Carleton and Arya Hezarkhani (Carnegie Mellon University) – $1,000

    Concept category
        •    First place: Sean Letendre and Christopher Ferris (Georgetown University) – $5,000

        •    Second place: Neal Ferrano (National Intelligence University) – $2,000

        •    Third place: Kellen Carleton and Arya Hezarkhani (Carnegie Mellon University) – $1,000

    Hackathon Judges

    • Ash Carter (Belfer Center Director and former Secretary of Defense)
    • MG John Davis (Federal Chief Security Officer, Palo Alto Networks, and former Senior Military Advisor for Cyber to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy)
    • Andrew Gully (Technical Research Manager, Google Jigsaw)
    • Shane Huntley (Director, Threat Analysis Group, Google)
    • Robby Mook (former Hillary Clinton campaign manager)
    • Kathy Pham (Computer scientist, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society)
    • Eric Rosenbach (Belfer Center Co-Director and former Pentagon “cyber czar”)
    • Anu Saha (Head of Technology IA, Salesforce)
    • Suzanne Spaulding (Senior Advisor, Center for Strategic and International Studies and former Under secretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security)
    • Charles Stewart III (Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at MIT)

    For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
    For Academic Citation: Burek, Joshua. “National Student Hackathon Showcases Innovative Proposals to Thwart Cyberattacks and Information Operations.” News, , March 30, 2018.

    The Author


    Ash Carter

    Eric Rosenbach