Computer Science students attend Hack Con X to plan for the Capture the Flag competition

Computer Science students attend Hack Con X to plan for the Capture the Flag competition

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 from August 26-28, 2022.

“A hacker is not necessarily a malicious person. A hacker is someone who uses technology in an unexpected way — in a way that was not originally intended. More specifically for CTF, you’re practicing the skills that will be directly applicable to cybersecurity jobs,” Marusek said .

Marusek and Williams are planning their own CTF competition to be held at OHIO. CTFs are competitions that test cyber security skills. Usually “flags” are random words embedded in a challenge. The teams must 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, ‘this is pretty sweet and a great way to practice hacking,'” Marusek said.

Marusek’s interest in computer science started at an early age. In third grade, Marusek noticed that competitors on his favorite video game had a bunch of modifications, and his first thought was that they must have hacked the game to get those benefits. Sharing this thought with his father, he encouraged Marusek to learn coding. Although he never cracked the code of his favorite video game, his interest in coding continued to grow. In high school, Marusek competed in Capture the Flag contests, and by college, he was ready to plan his own, along with Williams and Chad Mourning, an assistant professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

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Similarly, Williams became interested in computer science after she taught coding and robotics at a technology-based summer camp. She quickly learned that hackathons were not only a practical way to learn about 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 of the sponsoring companies,” Williams said.

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

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

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

“These contests are a huge amount of time that people are dedicated to hacking for four or five hours. Right now we’re planning to offer free pizza, but we’re exploring more creative food ideas because pizza isn’t nutritious or unique,” Marusek said.

Having participated in many CTFs across Ohio over the years, Marusek has a vision for OHIO’s CTF to be a competition that brings people together to practice security skills, search for vulnerabilities in computer software or hardware.

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“IM thinking of [OHIO’s CTF] as a springboard to build a group that will host annual events such as CTFs and hackathons. Both are a great opportunity for current students to network and learn and test new skills. In addition, these types of events draw in 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 a target for malicious hacking. It is up to computer scientists to build a community of people who know how to find and repair these vulnerabilities to prevent future attacks.

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

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