The Blair Cybersecurity Club starts its own competition: ångstromCTF

by Noah Singer '18 and Andrew Komo '18

Capture-the-flag, or CTF, cybersecurity competitions have skyrocketed in popularity throughout the security world in recent years. In the most common style of CTF, the so-called “jeopardy” style, teams solve various cybersecurity challenges—such as hacking into a web server, reverse engineering a program, breaking a cryptography cipher, or extracting information hidden in a disk image—and reveal a special phrase, called the “flag”, which they enter into the system to get points. Many CTFs are online and any team can register; events targeted towards college students and/or industry professionals routinely attract hundreds or even thousands of teams.

CTFs, more than any competition in other subject areas, are able to incorporate very deep, technical cybersecurity techniques into an exciting, competitive, and very playable game. They’re a safe, legal, and ethical way to hone skills that are critical for national security and corporate priorities, prepare for future careers, and explore broader interests in computer science and math.

The Blair Cybersecurity Club was founded in 2012 by then-Magnet sophomores Anthony Li, Noah Levine, and Aaron Szabo, sponsored by Mr. Schwartz (2012-2017) and Ms. Wright (2017-). Other captains include Daniel Chen (2016-2017), Noah Singer (2016-), George Klees (2016-), and William Wang (2017-). One of the team’s main priorities is to train for CTFs; Blair teams have scored several first-place wins in prominent nationwide high-school CTFs such as NYU’s Cybersecurity Awareness Week High School Forensics challenge and the MITRE Corporation’s MITRECTF.

In April 2016, after years of planning, Blair Magnet students launched their own CTF: ångstromCTF. The competition was entirely free and online and spanned 9 days; almost 500 teams participated. The following year, almost 700 teams, hailing from 79 countries and 36 U.S. states, participated in ångstromCTF 2.

ångstromCTF stands out among other high school CTFs for its rich and diverse collection of challenges, outreach to minority and low-experience competitors, and unique competition platform. Organizing it is a massive challenge that takes a team of ten students hundreds of hours.

Binary exploitation and reverse engineering—advanced, technical, and extremely useful disciplines which involve analyzing and penetrating computer programs that are often optimized and obfuscated beyond recognition—are embraced by ångstromCTF, while other high school CTFs focus on simpler and less realistic math problems and puzzles. ångstromCTF’s website, 80s-themed artwork, platform, and backend infrastructure have been designed and developed in-house from the ground up over several years in order to effectively and securely support the advanced nature of its content.

ångstromCTF’s staff uses social media, word of mouth, and Internet forums to inform potential competitors. In order to support competitors with little to no experience, organizers have developed an interactive learning guide that explains cybersecurity basics and then delves into competition topics like cybersecurity. Its leadership has partnered with academics at George Mason University, and its technical platform is supported by a grant from the Blair Magnet Foundation; prizes have been sponsored by major companies including DigitalOcean and BAE Systems.

This year, ångstromCTF 3 is scheduled for March 16-21, and with expanded challenges, more learning materials, and an all-new look, we can’t wait for it to be bigger and better than ever before! Sign up today!