President Obama, David Cameron announce ‘Cambridge v. Cambridge’ hackathon

President Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron at a news conference at the East Room of the White House Jan. 16. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
President Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron at a news conference at the East Room of the White House Jan. 16. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron announced a hackathon on Friday that is panning out to be the great cybersecurity smackdown of 2015. The pair are pitting wonks and nerds on either side of the Atlantic against each other in a battle called “Cambridge v. Cambridge.” 

Representing the US will be MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, who will go up against the computer science engineers from the University of Cambridge in the UK.

The event is part of a wider cybersecurity alliance between the two countries, also announced last week. That collaboration will include co-developing cyber defense strategies, securing core infrastructures, and supporting research. The friendly face-off is a part of that last effort.

Though there’s been a longstanding rivalry about “which Cambridge is the better one” real chances to go head-to-head have been few, said Howard Shrobe, a professor at MIT who will administer the challenge. “They don’t play the same football as we do,” Shrobe said, speaking of past opportunities for competition between the two cities. Besides this hackathon, he said, “The only one I can think of is crew.”

The hackathon is likely to take the form of a hackers’ “capture the flag” adventure. Each team will race as they seek access to coded secrets, while earning points for offensive and defensive strategies. Much of the event is still in the planning stage, however, and Shrobe hopes to find corporate sponsors to fund it.

The two countries are also funding a new Fulbright Cyber Security Award, whose recipients will have the freedom to conduct six-months worth of research in this area. Applications for this program will open later this year, for the first awardees to begin work in 2016.

In November last year, MIT’s CSAIL announced a $15 million research award from the Hewlett Foundation to research law and regulations around new technology like self-driving cars and autonomous flying drones. Shrobe said he hopes to expand the reach of the event beyond just a tech jam, and include policy wonks too.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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