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September 30, 2021

ASU Global Safety Initiative closes Capture the Flag competition at DEF CON

Every year, pirate gladiators come together to hone their skills and compete in the world’s most prestigious digital colosseum, DEF CON.

A mainstay of the cybersecurity industry, DEF CON is one of the largest hacking conventions in the world, its first event taking place in 1993. It offers hands-on hacking opportunities, workshops and presentations from experts in the world. government, industry and education in the field. Attendees included people interested in protecting the software IT architecture, digital infrastructure, and anything vulnerable to hacking.

Since 2018, faculty, students, and staff at the ASU Global Security Initiative’s Center for Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics have hosted DEF CON’s flagship event, the Capture the Flag competition, which features multiple security issues that competitors must identify and solve. Hundreds of teams from around the world compete each year to qualify for the final round, with 16 teams running as finalists.

“Our goal is to identify the best hackers on the planet. We designed this competition to demonstrate it, ”explains Adam Doupé, director of the Center for Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics and associate professor at the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence at ASU.

Through the Capture the Flag event, Arizona State University has helped thousands of people develop an adversarial mindset – an understanding of how an opponent thinks, what information is valuable to them, and what kind of tactics that it can deploy. This knowledge is crucial in today’s world where cybersecurity professionals must identify vulnerabilities before bad actors.

With much of our lives online, cybersecurity is everyone’s business. “

– Sally C. Morton, Executive Vice President of Knowledge Enterprise at ASU

DEF CON’s Capture the Flag (CTF) is an example of putting ASU’s mission into practice to create social impact and help learners acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to thrive in the hand -work today.

“The university has a huge appetite for real impact, and one of the challenges we face in academia is showing that the ideas explored are relevant – DEF CON allows us to do that,” said Yan Shoshitaishvili, researcher at the Center for Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics and Assistant Professor at the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence. “ASU is the best university to go to for cybersecurity. The people in charge of the ‘Olympics of hacking’ are also teachers from whom you can learn.

This year’s DEF CON, held in Las Vegas August 5-8, concludes ASU’s organization of the Capture the Flag competition, as the organization of the event rotates every few years. In 2020, the team pivoted to a fully virtual environment due to COVID-19. This year the event has become half remote, half in person.

“The team persevered and I am proud to call this our last year of hosting DEF CON CTF,” said Doupé.

As the United States continues to see threats to the country’s security and infrastructure, ASU professors have found that this competition highlights the impact that education and research can have.

“With much of our life online, cybersecurity is everyone’s business. By hosting one of the world’s largest cybersecurity competitions, the university’s Global Security Initiative demonstrates the importance ASU places on solving problems that affect everyone, while training the next generation of experts. safe, ”said Sally C. Morton, Executive Vice President of Knowledge Enterprise. at ASU.

Doupé said, “We’re trying to translate academic research into practical application, that’s where we’ve seen some of the best ideas and techniques spread. It is very difficult to apply a theoretical concept from an academic article until you have actually done it.

A distinctive feature of the Capture the Flag competition is that despite the high caliber of the competitors, anyone can try these hands-on challenges. Game Architects are dedicated to the philosophy of applying theory to everyday situations and providing these kinds of advanced skill building opportunities to anyone interested. To do this, they uploaded the challenges used in the tournament to for easy access.

“When we look at the story of DEF CON CTF, the same techniques and challenges that we do now will be standardized in five to 10 years for all cybersecurity players,” Doupé said.

Student participating in Capture the Flag, DEF CON 29

A participant in Capture the Flag. Photo from

The organizers are integrated into ASU’s network of cyber educators and the Global Security Institute team has adapted competitions based on their own areas of expertise. During the institute’s four years of participation, 3,229 teams from around the world competed in the Qualifiers and Finals of Capture the Flag, totaling 276 hours of active playing time. ASU faculty, staff, graduate students and external collaborators created 176 personalized challenges.

Zion Basque, an ASU student pursuing a PhD in Computer Science with a focus on Cyber ​​Security who participated in DEF CON29, aims to be the best of the best hackers while making the world a better place with his technical skills.

“The competition really puts your domain in perspective. Engaging with and against world-class hackers makes you realize how much this domain has to offer,” said Basque. “As a doctoral student, publishing articles is not enough. I believe that good security should be applied to real world situations. I am inspired by everything at DEF CON, helping the community and working hard to make my dreams come true.

The Global Security Institute will continue to stay connected to the Capture the Flag community by inspiring DEF CON collaborators and competitors.

“We wanted our last year to be exceptional – putting all our efforts into the novelty and scale of our challenges,” said Shoshitaishvili. “I am passionate about what DEF CON stands for: an opportunity for aspiring hackers to find resources and inspiration. “

Shoshitaishvili and Doupé host a podcast exclusively focused on CTF competitions called CTF Radio.

The development of technical skills and applied and accessible knowledge is at the heart of DEF CON and Capture the Flag. GSI is committed to increasing cybersecurity knowledge for all learners, and DEF CON Capture the Flag has been a key pillar in these efforts.

“The best thing about DEF CON CTF is that it brings people together,” says Debbie Kyle, project manager at the Center for Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics (CDF). “As the field of cybersecurity continues to evolve, gamers will continue to meet this challenge, and that’s exactly where CDF wants to be – right in the middle of the action. “

Top photo: The Capture the Flag team at DEF CON 29.

Olivier Dean

Communications Specialist, Global Security Initiative

480-727-4419[email protected]