Overview of Capture the Flag (CFT) Competitions

An online Capture the Flag competition is an exciting way to learn about the exciting world of cybersecurity. They’re a lot like a digital scavenger hunt. You’ll face many unique challenges and use your skills, knowledge, research, and industry leading tools to uncover hidden “flags” for points. These puzzles cover topics like cryptography, exploiting websites, open-source intelligence, digital forensics, and more. So, what is it like to compete in these competitions? Let’s go over some of these categories:

  • Cryptography – CTFs often explore ancient and modern ciphers from basic alphabet shifts to complicated mathematical algorithms. Knowing these methods and their vulnerabilities allow cybersecurity experts to better secure their information while understanding ways to decipher messages from attackers.
  • Website Exploitation – This category explores attacking vulnerabilities in applications running on web servers. Like knocking on doors to get a response, inspecting website code, testing input fields, and searching for hidden pages can provide information to find entrances into the server and its data.
  • Open-Source Intelligence – This involves leveraging public sources like search engines and social media to gain information about targets. CTFs will often create fake social media accounts, hide clues in metadata, or ask to find details on a particular item.
  • Digital Forensics – A wide category that usually concerns extracting hidden information within files. For example, images can have text stored in unused or unimportant sections of the file or application logs can have important information buried through hundreds or thousands of events.
  • Application Exploitation – Like website exploitation, this category involves finding and using vulnerabilities within an executable application. The CTF may provide the source code for discovering specific vulnerabilities, or they may not include any information and requires exploiting common issues like data overflow.

In CTF competitions you’ll receive points for capturing flags. The higher the difficulty of the challenge, the more points you’ll receive. You’ll also be able to view your points by category which is a great way to see what areas you can improve on.

With the wide variety of challenges and difficulties ranging from beginner to expert level, CTFs are great for individuals of all levels to learn and practice their skills!

Here are a couple of sites to check out if you’re interested in CTF’s or improving your cybersecurity skills:

  • ctftime.org – This site has a lot of great information on CTFs, you can find upcoming events and info on how to join them.
  • tryhackme.com – Online cybersecurity training platform that focuses on learning and also provides hands-on activities. 
  • hackthebox.com – Online cybersecurity training platform that focuses more on hacking and hands-on activities.

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