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'Capture The Flag' Contest Targets End Users

Capture the flag (CTF) competitions and similarly organized scenario-based "games" can be a great learning experience for security professionals of all experience levels. Contestants are typically forced to work under pressure and in scenarios that range from real-world situations to extreme, all-out cyber-warfare.
Capture the flag (CTF) competitions and similarly organized scenario-based "games" can be a great learning experience for security professionals of all experience levels. Contestants are typically forced to work under pressure and in scenarios that range from real-world situations to extreme, all-out cyber-warfare.Most of the CTF events I've participated in have included offense and defense. Each team typically gets a server they must secure while maintaining a number of services that have been developed for the game. The teams attack each other, trying to exploit the running services while protecting their own. Sounds like fun, right? Since 2003, the University of California in Santa Barbara has been hosting a CTF game, which started out with just 14 teams and has grown into an international event called iCTF. The competition drew 56 teams from universities around the world this past week. Instead of having the typical set up that focused on offense/defense, the organizers threw in a modern twist: users and client-side attacks.

We've all seen the shift from network- and server-based attacks to client-side and user-focused attacks. With the past focus on protecting the perimeter and hardening servers, user desktops were left with less than desirable protection. Users are usually seen by IT as the weakest link because of their willingness to trust messages and phone calls from "IT" asking for passwords, mothers' maiden names, etc.

In the 2009 iCTF, 1,000 virtual users used five different custom-written "Web browsers." Each team was responsible for hosting a Web server that was indexed by a search engine and publishing "news" to the site that would draw users in. It was a lesson in developing client-side attacks against Web browsers and manipulating search engines to pull users to the pages containing the exploits.

Teams could also earn points by completing challenges based on trivia, forensics, and reverse engineering. Several of the forensic challenges were amusing because they dealt with malware I've seen firsthand.

I thought iCTF was a very impressive and well-designed event, one that helped open the eyes of many university students about what current modern malware attacks are like. I know our students learned a lot and had a great time in the process. If you're affiliated with a university or college in any way, then I highly recommend you check it out next year.

John H. Sawyer is a senior security engineer on the IT Security Team at the University of Florida. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are his own and do not represent the views and opinions of the UF IT Security Team or the University of Florida. When John's not fighting flaming, malware-infested machines or performing autopsies on blitzed boxes, he can usually be found hanging with his family, bouncing a baby on one knee and balancing a laptop on the other. Special to Dark Reading.

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