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January 5, 2024 |

Capture the Flag: What you should know about cybersecurity CTFs

By Ben Filipkowski

With contributions from Mark Gaudet.

Last updated: March 21, 2024

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Capture the Flag competitions are gaining popularity across the globe for cybersecurity enthusiasts, IT professionals, and students. CTF competitions are great for gaining hands-on cybersecurity experience, networking with like-minded individuals, and much more.

Before we jump into the benefits, let's start by explaining what Capture the Flag competitions are and how they work.

What is Capture the Flag?

In cybersecurity, Capture the Flag (CTF) competitions are exercises in which participants, either individually or as part of a team, are challenged to find and exploit vulnerabilities in a system to capture a "flag" or piece of information.

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CTFs typically make use of a simulated environment, such as a website, network, or system with predetermined vulnerabilities. Participants are tasked with capturing a flag—quite literally a message that says "FLAG{YOU_FOUND_ME}”—that’s hidden behind a cybersecurity-based obstacle.

Once the participant obtains the flag, they submit it and receive points. The difficulty of the obstacle hiding the flag message indicates the number of points granted. The team (or individual) with the most points wins the competition.

Simply, CTFs gamify cybersecurity.

Types of CTF competitions

CTF challenges come in many formats but are all designed to simulate real-world scenarios that cybersecurity professionals could face while on the job.

As one example, some CTF challenges focus on reverse engineering, where participants are given a piece of malware or other software to analyze and uncover vulnerabilities. Competitions designed to test a person’s ability to hack and gain access to a server may hide the flag in a file called flag.txt, in a location only accessible if the participant gains unauthorized access.

One of the most common types of CTF is the jeopardy-style competition. In this format, teams are presented with numerous challenges or questions, each assigned a point value. The teams compete to solve these challenges quickly and accurately to earn points. The team with the highest score at the end of the competition is declared the winner.

There's also the attack-and-defense competition. In these competitions, teams must defend their own systems while simultaneously attempting to penetrate their opponent's networks to retrieve flags.

What are the benefits of CTFs?

One of the main benefits of CTF competitions is that they allow participants to gain hands-on experience and develop practical skills in cybersecurity. Participants are exposed to various cybersecurity challenges and are forced to think outside the box to find solutions. This helps to sharpen problem-solving skills, improve analytical thinking, and develop a deeper understanding of cybersecurity concepts.

Another benefit of CTF competitions is they’re a great way to stay up-to-date with new cybersecurity trends and technologies. Participants are often required to solve challenges related to emerging cybersecurity threats, such as malware, ransomware, and phishing attacks. This helps educate participants on the latest tools and techniques hackers and defenders use.

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What's more, CTF competitions offer an opportunity to network with like-minded individuals. These competitions often attract diverse participants, including cybersecurity professionals, researchers, and students. This provides an excellent opportunity to create professional connections, share knowledge and ideas, and learn from others in the industry.

CTF competitions can be a stepping stone for a career in cybersecurity. Many employers recognize the value of CTF competitions in identifying skilled and talented individuals. In fact, some CTFs even offer job opportunities to the winners.

Finally, capture the flag exercises are a fun and engaging way for individuals to gain knowledge and skills related to cybersecurity. They provide a safe environment where participants can explore different hacking techniques and hone their skills in a controlled setting.

Who runs CTFs?

More organizations use CTFs to test security measures in a safe and controlled environment. They're also popular among individuals seeking to develop their skills in ethical hacking. CTFs challenge you to explore systems you would have never experienced or test skills that may be rusty because they aren't part of your day job.

Capture the Flag is one of the oldest competitions at DEFCON, a popular hacking convention held annually in Las Vegas. According to their website, the first DEFCON CTF took place in 1996 and is one of the oldest CTF events that still runs today.

Additionally, CTFs are being used to teach students about cybersecurity and get them excited about a possible career in infosec. For example, CyberTitan is a Canadian cybersecurity competition run by ICTC that prepares middle and secondary school students with learning opportunities through hands-on simulated environments.

This yearly competition helps students develop the critical, digital skills necessary to pursue post-secondary education STEM programs, learn skills essential to work in many fields, and identify roles students can play to secure systems.

The challenges of running a CTF

Infrastructure is one of the most common challenges faced while running a CTF. Normally, you'd use your own computer to host challenges, and another to run the point-scoring website. The participants typically have to show up with a "hacker" laptop, ready for use with all their own tools pre-installed.

To combat the infrastructure problem, some organizations are turning to cyber ranges—simulation-based security training platforms—to run their CTFs. With a cyber range, you can quickly provision infrastructure for the challenge, with all the tools the participants may need already installed. Plus, because the CTF occurs on a completely simulated network, participants can experiment and compete without risk.

What’s more, a cyber range allows for additional useful functionality such as a scoreboard, countdown timer, and a message board that streams activity as teams get flags.

Using a cyber range for the CTF also drastically lowers the barrier of entry. Instead of having to show up with an elaborate hacker laptop, anyone with a computer and internet connection can log in to the cyber range platform and get started.

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In fact, ICTC uses Field Effect Cyber Range for its CyberTitan initiative. This year’s competition is a maple syrup factory that has been compromised. Students must respond to an in-progress cyberattack while keeping operations running at the factory.

“We’re thrilled to partner with Field Effect and help transform training and learning in cybersecurity,” Steve shares. “If we can draw just 5-10% of the participating kids that are interested in learning more, we can increase the talent pool significantly.”

Read the full case study for more information about how ICTC uses the Field Effect Cyber Range.