The conclusion of summer is always sad, yet enlightinig. I got to conclude my summer in a special way this year. About three weeks before I was scheduled to return to smoldering Pheonix, I got an email from the captain of my hacking team, the pwndevils, inviting me to attend DEFCON as an assistant organizer for the convention CTF.
For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about when I say DEFCON, I will elegantly explain the inconcivably cool convention. DEFCON is the name of the worlds largest hacker meetup/convention in the world, a reference to the Pentagon’s DEFCON levels of state emergency (you know, what happens when hackers ‘break the firewall’). DEFCON on a normal year hosts anywhere from 20-30 thousand people including: hackers, press, convention speakers, artists, and organizers. Essentially, its just a cluster of individuals whom are involved in hacker culture. By far, the most bad-ass convention held in North America.
Although the majority of the convention is spent hanging out with hackeres, there is a main event known as the DEFCON CTF, where the best hackers in the world compete for one victor. I can confidently say DEFCON CTF is known as the “Olympics of hacking.” Hackers, including myself, compete year round to qualify for DEFCON CTF through smaller CTFs determined fit to qual for DEFCON. Only 21 teams can qualify, spanning from Russian teams to Poland teams.
One more explanation: CTF stands for Capture The Flag, which is similar to the physical version of the game. In this digital version, teams have one computer which have multiple “flags” on them. A flag will look like a password stored in a special way on the computer. Hackers are tasked to hack into each others computer, while also defending their own. The team that captures the most flags in a 48 hour battle royal wins.
Taking a pause from my obvious fanboy mentality, I was more than ecstatic to accept an invitation to attend DEFCON for free, and help organize the hardest hacking competition in the world. At 19, this was indefinitely a once in a lifetime opportunity I got to partake in. DEFCON is hosted in Las Vegas, so although I did not get to escape the 115 degree temperature, I still had a great time. I especially enjoyed making stronger bonds with my new founded hacking team and my lab professors.
I competed in a few competitions while I was there, it was pretty epic. For instance, one competition I competed in featured a well known game called Team Fortress 2–for anyone that does not know TF2, its similar to Overwatch or a messy version of Call of Duty. The game was called Hack Fortress and had a hacker-player setup, so a team of 10 people had 6 people playing TF2, while 4 others hacked programs to earn the players upgrade and to disadvantage the enemy team. It was fun as hell, but sadly I lost in the first round, I SWEAR IT WAS THOSE DAMN PLAYERS.
One encounter left a lasting impression on me. It felt like an introduction to how this new school year was going to turn out. While looking for a team for Hack Fortress, I was assigned to pre-competition formed team that needed one more teammate. I was delighted to join the team, but of course I really wanted to be a Hacker on the team, instead of a Player. The team only needed a player. The team and I started discussing possible positions that I could maybe play, so I started taking out my laptop to take notes when all-of-a-suden the entire team paused and stared.
They were staring at the sticker I had on my laptop. The sticker was modified version of the Shellphish logo. Shellphish is the University of California Santa Barbra hacking team logo. I was recently invited onto the team, which was an honor–apparently an honor I did not fully comprehend at the time. When my Hack Fortress team saw the logo, they hesitated, then asked: “Do you play on that team?” In a unwary voice I muttered “yes.” Nearly simultaneously, they said, “You are playing as one of the hackers.”
This shocked me in a juxtaposed way. I knew Shellphish was good, but I did not know how good. As I conversed with more members at DEFCON, it became very clear that Shellphish was a well known entity in the hacking community. For years, Shellphish has held a significant rolein the community of exploitation and has been known as one of the best hacking teams in the entire world–embodying the legends of hackademics. Although I was filled with pride to be on world class hacking team, I was also feared with fear–how the hell did I get on this team?
I’m still answering the question above, imposter syndrome is a big thing in academia. I’m not sure if I am as good as the members around me, but DEFCON has showed me that in time I can be. This year I will be playing hacking competition every weekend in a world class team, we’ll see where I stand by the end of the year. Hopefully not dead, lol.
P.S. I should have posted this two months ago, but I’ve been booked… playing competitions in my writing time. Who-would’ve-guessed? I promise more soon.