Cyber Competitions: Do You Have What It Takes?

It’s a beautiful spring afternoon and you head to the ballpark to hear the cracks of the bats, witness breaking curves and see spectacular catches. But there’s another sport taking the field this spring: cyber competitions.

Young folks from around the world are answering the call of “Do you have what it takes?” as a part of cyber competitions. They’re stepping up to the plate and facing the challenges of information security, programming, cryptography, network reconnaissance and computer forensics.

With the playing field now online, cyber competitions are becoming a sanctioned team sport. These kids are ready to play. Are you?

A New Cyber Sport

Cyber competitions and Capture the Flag (CTF) events aren’t new to the information security world. Started at DEF CON in the 1990s, they’ve grown to become their own sport, complete with formal leagues, contests and sponsors.

“We believe those that participate in cyber competitions are cyber athletes with the same training, passion and coolness,” said Dr. Dan Manson, a professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and coordinator of the Cybersecurity Competition Federation. “However, the opportunities for these athletes to go pro are much greater.”

Not only do participants practice their computing skills, but they also learn intangible skills such as problem-solving, teamwork and communications. All are valuable for individuals looking to launch a career in cybersecurity.

High School CTF

One New Jersey high school student even has what it takes to run his own national cyber competition. Two years ago, Jacob Edelman started the High School Capture the Flag (HSCTF) competition. It is known as “the first CTF designed by high schoolers for high schoolers.”

Edelman did it to meet the need for more cybersecurity education that wasn’t being provided in his AP computer science class. His mission is to empower “passionate high school programmers to enrich computer science learning in their communities.”

The program grew from 2,000 students in its first year to 2,300 in 2015. He’s expecting greater numbers this year — and he’s not stopping anytime soon: There’s a group of students ready to take his place when he moves on to Princeton University in the fall.

Are You Smarter Than a High Schooler?

Below is a sample cyber competition and CTF question, courtesy of Edelmen and the HSCTF practice questions.

HSCTF Sample Question

Do you have what it takes to figure out the answer?

AFA CyberPatriot Champions

The Air Force Association’s CyberPatriot National Youth Cyber Defense Competition is another high school contest that just completed its 2015–2016 season. CyberPatriot is the premier middle and high school competition, with over 3,300 registered teams — a 55 percent increase from the previous year. In the competition, teams of two to six students compete throughout the school year in securing Windows and Linux operating systems, Cisco networking and forensics challenges.

On April 14, 2016, winners of the CyberPatriot VIII contest were announced in Baltimore. In the ceremony, Bernie Skoch, the national commissioner of the organization, remarked, “We are honored to play a role in developing STEM education in our nation.”

CyberPatriot VIII Champions
Source: The Air Force Association

Creating a CTF

“Do you have what it takes?” also applies to creating a CTF contest. While it can take many formats, there are four primary types of competitions:

  • Standard CTF: Competitors find answers to questions often hidden on systems.
  • Attack and Defend: Competitors attempt to capture the other team’s computer while defending their own.
  • Computer Defense: Competitors receive points for securing operating systems.
  • Jeopardy: Teams receive points for answering questions designed like a quiz.

The variety of formats allows almost anyone to participate from anywhere in the world. All you need is a computer, an Internet connection and the desire to learn.

Meeting the Need for Cyber Competitions

Cyber competitions are great ways to bridge the gap between education, professional skills and career opportunities. Ultimately, they act as possible solutions benefiting students, information security professionals and the industry as a whole, particularly by addressing the growing cybersecurity skills gap.

Students participating in these programs are stepping outside of the traditional classroom to beef up their skills in one of the few extracurricular school activities that practically guarantees a professional career.

Organizations can support their local cyber competition and help build the cybersecurity community. Do you have what it takes?

Contributor'photo

Ron Woerner

Director of Cybersecurity Studies, Bellevue University

Ron Woerner is the Director of Cybersecurity Studies at Bellevue University. He has over 25 years of corporate and...