A friendly game of ‘capture the flag,’ cyber style

July 28, 2017
capture the flag

Students from high schools and colleges throughout the country recently participated in a three-day "capture the flag" challenge, which was part of a 12-week internship providing students with the chance to explore real-world issues in cybersecurity. (Download Image)

A friendly game of ‘capture the flag,’ cyber style

Jeremy Thomas, thomas244@llnl.gov, 925-422-5539

Sporting names like the Indigo Tube Worms, Ultra Violet Sloths and Orange Chicken, teams of student summer interns matched wits against each other and competitors at Los Alamos National Laboratory and San Jose City College in a series of "capture the flag" challenges that tested their knowledge of reverse engineering, code sequencing, steganography and other cybersecurity areas.

For eight hours a day for three days, from July 19-21, the students, hailing from high schools and colleges throughout the country, tackled puzzles and raced to collect flags in a friendly, yet fierce competition. This year, a total of 10 teams and 52 students competed, and for the first time, students at multiple locations were connected to a shared server so they could see scores in real time.

"It's cool. I'm learning a lot more than I thought I would," said Khadijah Boykin, a computer engineering major from Benedict College in South Carolina, as she worked on cracking a code sequence. "We all come from different backgrounds and majors, but we all come together to help each other solve these puzzles."

After the second day's session, Jamarcus Glenn, a computer science major from South Carolina State University, scanned the scoreboard, hunting for where his team, the Lemoncello Llamas, had placed in the standings.

"It's been a great experience," Glenn said. "You get to measure yourself against other people. I've been able to see what my strengths and weaknesses are and what I need to know."

For Glenn and others, the three-day challenge was the highlight of the Cyber Defenders program, a 12-week internship that provides students with the chance to explore real-world issues in cybersecurity. From June through August, students participate in individual and group exercises, attend seminars and lectures and work closely with Lab mentors on research projects, sharing their results in a poster session at the end of their internship. Many of the students attended through the Consortium Enabling Cybersecurity Opportunities and Research (CECOR), a cybersecurity education and workforce partnership between the Department of Energy's (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and 13 historically black colleges and universities (HBCU).

LLNL data science expert Celeste Matarazzo, a principal investigator within the Center for Applied Scientific Computing, founded Cyber Defenders in 2009 and serves as its program manager. She said the capture the flag challenge is a way for students to network and put their skills to the test in a fun and engaging way.

"You can sit in class all summer long, but here you get that adrenaline going and a little competition and it reinforces what they've learned," Matarazzo said. "It builds their technical competencies and their sense of teamwork. We're really trying to improve their skills for the type of work that goes on in cyber."

Clark Taylor, a Ph.D candidate in computer science from the University of Arizona, spends his summers working with students at the Lab. During the event, Taylor was a member of the "white team" of faculty and mentors who assisted with troubleshooting and supported the students through the various puzzles.

"We want them to think outside the box," Taylor said. "In security, it's about trying to outwit the other side. I think everybody has a great time doing this -- the competitive aspect drives it, but the students like to work together too."

So far, Cyber Defenders has brought in more than 200 students to the Lab as interns. While Matarazzo said the impact of the program is yet to be quantified, she estimates that about a quarter of past participants have been hired on as employees.

Soon-to-be LLNL employee Pablo Arias, who works on capture the flag events and software, went through the Cyber Defenders program as a summer intern and is joining the staff of Global Security Computing in August. He said the experience taught him about coding in different computer languages such as Python and JavaScript, and to apply his knowledge to relevant problems.

"The program helped me increase my toolset," Arias said. "In school, I had a toolbelt but didn't know what to do with it. It's a lot like building a house."

As for the capture the flag contest, the Limegreen Ligers, captained by Fred Keenan along with teammates Bernard Aldrich, Mallory Roseman, Lawrence Carson and the event's MVP Katie Seidl, claimed this year's title. Following the event, the students held a film festival of videos they produced on topics related to cybersecurity.