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

In preparation for Ohio University’s Capture the Flag (CTF) competition, computer science students Josh Marusek and Alex Williams attended the Major League Hacking’s Hackcon X conference from August 26-28, 2022. 
“A hacker isn’t necessarily someone malicious. A hacker is someone who uses technology in an unexpected way — in a way it wasn’t originally intended. More specifically to CTF, you are practicing the skills that would be directly applicable to cyber security jobs,” Marusek said.  

Marusek and Williams are planning their very own CTF competition hosted at OHIO. CTFs are competitions that test cyber security skills. Typically, “flags” are random words embedded within a challenge. 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 got 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 the third grade, Marusek noticed that competitors on his favorite video game had a plethora of modifications, and his first thought was that they must have hacked the game to get those benefits. When he shared this thought with his dad, he encouraged Marusek to learn coding. While he never cracked the code on his favorite video game, his interest in coding continued to grow. By high school, Marusek was competing in Capture the Flag competitions and by college, he was ready to plan his own, alongside Williams and Chad Mourning, assistant professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.  

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 sponsor companies,” Williams said.  

Both Williams and Marusek had positive prior experience participating in hackathons and CTF competitions, and they were ready to begin 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 learned [from Hack Con X] is a summary of how to run your first hackathon. It gave me the base knowledge I needed to run events like hackathons and CTFs,” Marusek said.  

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

“These competitions are a big block of time that people are dedicated to hacking for four or five hours. Right now, we plan to offer free pizza, but we are exploring more creative food ideas because pizza is not nutritious or unique,” Marusek said.  

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

“I think of [OHIO’s CTF] as a steppingstone to building a group that will put on annual events like CTFs and hackathons. Both are a great opportunity for current students to build a network and learn and test new skills. Additionally, having these kinds 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, there 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 weaknesses 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 excited to get people together at OHIO’s CTF to see what they can do,” Marusek said.  

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