Computer science students attend Hack Con X to plan Capture the Flag contest

In preparation for Ohio University’s Capture the Flag (CTF) competition, computer science students Josh Marusek and Alex Williams attended Major League Hacking’s Hackcon X conference August 26-28, 2022.

“A hacker is not necessarily someone malicious. A hacker is someone who uses technology in an unexpected way – in a way that was not originally intended. Specifically at CTF, you practice skills that would be directly applicable to cybersecurity jobs,” Marusek said.

Marusek and Williams are planning their own CTF contest held in OHIO. CTFs are competitions that test cybersecurity skills. Typically, “flags” are random words embedded in a challenge. Teams should use their computer security knowledge to find the flags. Challenges are worth points, with more difficult challenges rewarding more points.

“I had been doing CTFs for a while. I started in high school and thought, “That’s pretty cool and a great way to practice hacking,” Marusek said.

Marusek’s interest in computers began at an early age. In third grade, Marusek noticed that his favorite video game’s competitors had a plethora of mods, and his first thought was that they must have hacked the game to get those benefits. When he shared this thought with his father, he encouraged Marusek to learn coding. Although he never cracked the code for his favorite video game, his interest in coding continued to grow. In high school, Marusek competed in Capture the Flag competitions, and in college he was set to plan his own, alongside Williams and Chad Mourning, an assistant professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Likewise, Williams became interested in computer science after teaching coding and robotics at a tech-focused summer camp. She quickly learned that hackathons were not only a hands-on way to learn hacking, but they were fun and created opportunities for professional development.

“Hackathons are a great way to meet people, learn new skills, and interact with representatives from sponsoring companies,” Williams said.

Both Williams and Marusek had positive experiences participating in CTF hackathons and competitions, and they were ready to start planning their own. Together, they attended Hack Con X to build their networks and skills to launch their own OHIO-hosted contest.

“The greatest thing I’ve learned [from Hack Con X] is a summary of how to organize your first hackathon. It gave me the basic knowledge I needed to run events like hackathons and CTFs,” Marusek said.

He noted that CTFs are designed to test contestants’ skills, but also have the potential to be fun. Many competitions have signature traditions, such as playing specific songs or serving certain foods, and Marusek wants to be sure to include a unique tradition for the OHIO CTF.

“These competitions represent a big chunk of time that people spend hacking for four or five hours. Right now we plan to give away free pizza, but we are exploring more creative food ideas because pizza is neither nutritious nor unique,” ​​Marusek said.

Since Marusek has competed in many CTFs across Ohio over the years, it is his vision that the OHIO CTF will be a competition that brings people together to practice security skills, looking for vulnerabilities. in computer software or hardware.

“I think about [OHIO’s CTF] as a springboard to create a group that will organize annual events like CTFs and hackathons. Both are a great opportunity for current students to network and learn and test new skills. Also, having these kinds of events attracts new students,” Williams said.

CTFs and hacking in general require creativity to identify weaknesses because if a problem exists in a security system, it is only a matter of time before it becomes the target of a malicious hack . It is up to IT professionals to build a community of people who know how to find and fix these weaknesses to prevent future attacks.

“I met a lot of really cool people at Hack Con X. It’s great to get to know more people in the community and it makes me excited to bring people together at CTF OHIO to see what they can do “, said Marusek.

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