KSU Capture the Flag Competition Promotes Information Security Careers to High Schoolers

KENNESAW, Ga. | Oct 28, 2020

For Dr. Andy Green, the most important thing about his job is preparing the next generation to thrive in the rapidly growing field of information security. That is why he is hosting an information security competition next month for high school students that he hopes will motivate them to pursue careers in the lucrative industry.

Green, a professor of information security and assurance with Kennesaw State University’s Michael J. Coles College of Business, is partnering with cybersecurity firm risk3sixty to host the 2020 High School Capture the Flag Competition (CTF) on Saturday, Nov. 14. The no-cost virtual event, which is open to all high school students globally, will see contestants solving a series of security challenges and competing for $500 in prizes.

Kennesaw State High School Capture the Flag Competition

With Cybersecurity Ventures estimating that 3.5 million information security jobs will go unfilled next year and Glassdoor reporting that the average information security analyst earns $76,000 per year, Green sees outreach efforts like the competition as critically important to the industry’s future.

“From an industry perspective, companies cannot hire enough qualified security personnel,” he said. “That’s why our graduates are white hot and command the salaries they do walking across the stage. We want to address that concern and make kids aware that this may be the career path for them.”

In information security circles, “capture the flag” traditionally refers to technology-based competitions where challengers reverse-engineer an application or break into a secure system to download a file, called the flag. However, the term has evolved to describe a variety of competitions focused on computers and technology.

The High School CTF is a Jeopardy style competition. Students, working individually, select challenges of varying point levels from seven categories, ranging from programming and vocabulary to password cracking and cryptography. They then have a time limit to work out the solution, with participants earning more points the faster they finish.

An example challenge might be providing contestants with encrypted text along with supplemental material they can look through for clues on how to decrypt it.

All the challenges are being developed with Green’s oversight by a team of ISA graduates and current students in Kennesaw State’s Offensive Security Research Club. The task has proven to be a great learning opportunity.

“It’s been difficult because you’re not trying to make a highly discouraging challenge,” said Offsec Research Club president Stuart Smith. “Anyone can come up with an impossible problem. But building a capture the flag competition is about making sure there are multiple avenues to a solution. It’s also important to make sure the challenge is calibrated to the entry-level skillset.”

The volunteers will also help run the event. Interactions between students, their parents, and organizers will all take place on the digital communication platform Discord, which the volunteers will monitor.

Being a part of the competition’s design and implementation has been rewarding for Andrew Marks, another member of the Offsec Research Club, who wishes events like this existed when he was in high school.

“There were not as many avenues for information security interests when I was in high school,” Marks said. “Times have changed. This is a perfect time for high school students who are interested in information security to pursue the enormous amount of activities that are dedicated to young students planning to enter the field.”

Because the all-day event is virtual, the competition is open to all high school students around the world. The only requirement is that parents or guardians register on behalf of the student.

risk3sixty is sponsoring the technology infrastructure to run the competition and is furnishing prizes for the top three finishers. First place receives a one-year subscription to the Pentester Academy online information security educational platform. Second place gets a Raspberry Pi single board computer. And third place receives a lockpick kit. The top ten contestants all get a gift set from risk3sixty.

Regardless of which student wins, Green is confident the High School Capture the Flag will be a victory for everyone involved. High school students will get valuable experience in an in-demand career field, while Green will come away with insights that will help the IS department enhance its curriculum, thanks to a skills assessment he wrote alongside IS professor Amy Woszcynski that contestants will fill out before and after the competition.

Not least of all, Green believes the competition provides Kennesaw State with the opportunity to serve the community through increased educational opportunities.

“Whether we bring them into KSU or not, the fact that we engage with the community is important,” he said. “I am an altruist at heart and believe that we make things better as a University as we engage with the communities around us. The CTF is free of charge. Kids just need time, the Internet, and a computer. That’s all it takes.”

High school students interested in registering for the event can do so at bit.ly/isa-ctf-registration and can join the conversation on Discord at bit.ly/isa-ctf-discord.

-Patrick Harbin

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