HACKtheMACHINE is a technology prize challenge where people from any lifestyle or occupation can help the Navy solve its foremost cybersecurity and technical problems.
Organized as a three-track contest held over a three-day period in the leading tech ecosystems around the country, HACKtheMACHINE is in its fifth year of operation. Previous events were held in San Francisco 2016, Austin 2017, Boston 2017, Seattle 2018, and the latest, HACKtheMACHINE New York, in 2019.
Ideas and solutions from past Hack the Machine challenges are at work throughout the Navy today.
HACKtheMACHINE New York was held Sept. 6-8 onboard the former USS Intrepid and at New Lab in the Brooklyn Navy Yard with three tracks or challenges:
- Track 1: Maritime Cyber – Hack the Ship
- Track 2: Data Science – Cleared for Takeoff
- Track 3: Advanced Manufacturing – Rendering Aid
Launched in 2016, New Lab supports more than 130 startups in 84,000 square feet of space. New Lab's location dates back to 1902, when it served as the primary machine shop for every major ship launched during World Wars I and II. Reinvigorated by the facility's rich history, New Lab is now home to 760 entrepreneurs working in today's most cutting-edge technologies, including quantum computing, space technology, autonomous vehicles, advanced medical research, and more.
HACKtheMACHINE New York received more than 800 registration inquiries with over 625 on-site attendees. Participants were from diverse backgrounds and from various professions, including school teachers, engineers, authors, data scientists, and doctors.
Rear Adm. Lorin Selby, NAVSEA 05, representing Naval Sea Systems Command as the executive agent for HACKtheMACHINE New York, provided executive leadership. Track sponsors included: NAVSEA, Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), Naval Information Warfare Systems Command (NAVWAR), Office of Naval Research (ONR), and Navy Cyber Warfare Development Group.
CHIPS senior editor Sharon Anderson asked Admiral Selby to discuss what the Navy has learned from the HACKtheMACHINE series; he responded to questions in late October.
CHIPS: The Brooklyn Navy Yard, with its historical significance and new focus on socially oriented research and tech manufacturing, is the perfect setting for HACKtheMACHINE New York. Do you think participants were inspired by the environment and history?
Selby: Definitely. One reason we selected New Lab was the historical significance of the building and the area. Many who participated at the event had family members who had worked in the shipyard and served onboard the ships produced by this facility. That historical backdrop resonated with the participants, and I think it gave meaning to what we were trying to accomplish. It also demonstrated the progress we’ve made and why I developed the Digital Engineering Blueprint for NAVSEA.
To maintain our competitive advantage, the Navy needs to keep up with the pace of technological change and commoditization. What would have required years of design and development is now a purchasable commodity, potentially reducing costs and decreasing schedules. The Digital Engineering Blueprint documents these opportunities and challenges that we are facing as a Navy. HACKtheMACHINE is one means by which we gain insight into how we might use modern technology, software engineering, and software development practices, such as DevSecOPs, to expand our technological and strategic advantage over our adversaries.
CHIPS: It’s interesting that anyone, from fashion designers to students, can participate. Are there certain characteristics that make people successful in finding cyber vulnerabilities? Why doesn’t the Navy just hire cyber professionals to solve its toughest cybersecurity problems?
Selby: There are no particular characteristics that make someone good at finding cyber vulnerabilities. The diversity of the team is key to solving problems. Year after year, we’ve seen that teams with a diverse set of individuals tend to be more successful in terms of winning the competition. One exciting aspect of that diversity is found in our civilian workforce at the Naval Surface and Undersea Warfare Centers. Teams that have members from several Warfare Centers tend to compete well and have really interesting insights. Our current workforce is intelligent, energetic, and creative, and is one of the keys to our Navy’s success. As a leader, it is my responsibility to remove impediments and encourage the type of collaboration we see at HACKtheMACHINE across the systems commands, Warfare Centers, and program offices.
CHIPS: How were the challenges developed and selected? Do challenges build on lessons learned from previous HACKtheMACHINE events?
Selby: All of the track challenges are based on real-world situations our Navy encounters. We had to make sure the challenges were crafted in such a way that we can conduct a competition in the form of a game. I usually have my staff reach out to various offices throughout the Navy looking for real challenges that we all agree are relevant and appropriate for this type of venue.
Lessons are taken from each event to improve the next event. One area we are learning the most about relates to data. The Navy has extremely large data sets. The problem we’ve identified is that the data we need to train advanced machine learning algorithms can be stovepiped. The organizational boundaries that we cross at HACKtheMACHINE are also relevant to our data problem. Data also needs to be shared freely across organizational boundaries. Without these porous boundaries, logical connections can’t be made, and training data for machine learning algorithms aren’t as complete as they need to be.
CHIPS: Can you discuss some of the key insights the Navy gained from HACKtheMACHINE New York?
Selby: Our current operating environment and threats from adversaries require that we make cybersecurity a priority to protect our Sailors and assets. A key insight that we gained was the need for constant red teaming of ideas and technology early in the research and development phase of programs. In the Maritime Cyber track, we conducted adversarial assessments of some research phase technology, which resulted in the early identification of software flaws and implementation challenges that can be quickly corrected. Early identification of software issues is critical to deploying secure software and driving down software costs.
CHIPS: Will there be another HACKtheMACHINE event?
Selby: We are planning HACKtheMACHINE 2020 right now. We are considering several locations and selecting the challenges. We look forward to this event for years to come because it allows us to showcase the talented people within our Enterprise while also tapping into the knowledge and skills of ordinary Americans all across the country to keep our Sailors safe and our data secure.