The 'Olympics of hacking'

ASU faculty play leading role in international hacking competition, design obstacles for the world’s best teams

August 4, 2020

In the world of competitive hacking, to be the best, you need to compete against the best. One annual event organized by a team led by Arizona State University faculty brings the most proficient hackers from around the world together to sharpen their skills by solving a series of complex cybersecurity problems.

DEF CON is the premier hacking conference in the world, and one of its signature events is its capture the flag tournament that features teams of the world's top hackers. For the third year in a row, faculty with the Global Security Initiative’s Center for Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics are designing the obstacles competitors will need to overcome in order to win this "Olympics of hacking." ASU faculty and other members of the organizing team at DEF CON 27, 2019 ASU faculty and organizing team at DEF CON 27, 2019. Download Full Image

“Software is everywhere and has vulnerabilities,” said Adam Doupé, competition "hackulty" member and a leader of the Center for Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics. “Hackers can demonstrate the flaws in systems so we can ultimately make things more secure. As we rely more and more on digital technologies to work, to live and to socialize in the age of COVID-19, the security of these services is paramount.”

The skills honed at this competition can be serious business. Apple will offer up to $2,000,000 to anyone who identifies a vulnerability that allows an attacker to take over an iPhone with no interaction.

As a grassroots effort hosted by hackers for hackers, the DEF CON capture the flag competition is an important training ground and skills-building opportunity for the next generation of cybersecurity professionals.

DEF CON 28 Logo, pair of boots, capture the flag text in black, white and teal

The competition challenges hackers with a series of intricate security problems. Each challenge is like a puzzle — a Rubik's Cube or sudoku. The participants need to identify vulnerabilities in software and then figure out how to exploit them in order to move on to the next stage of the competition.

Launching on Aug. 7 and running through Aug. 9, the DEF CON capture the flag accommodates players in varying time zones — this year, it will be conducted in shifts across the three days. The game has different challenges made available to teams at set times, and the goal is to identify a vulnerability and develop an exploit. Upon accomplishing both, the team has "captured the flag" for that challenge, winning the game.

“Throughout this competition, we are training the next generation of cybersecurity experts to have an ‘adversarial mindset’ so they can identify vulnerabilities and secure systems before a malicious attack can compromise them,” said Doupé, an associate professor in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering, one of the six Fulton Schools of Engineering.

ASU is a national leader in competitive hacking, helping current and future cybersecurity professionals build core skills such as vulnerability detection, cryptographic analysis, reverse engineering, and program repair. In addition to leading the design of the DEF CON competition, multiple ASU student clubs — including the PwnDevils and DevilSec — compete nationally and internationally in competitive hacking.

Celebrating its 28th year, DEF CON is an annual event traditionally hosted in Las Vegas with a wide range of attendees from different institutions and communities. Due to COVID-19, the event has migrated entirely to a virtual platform — everything and everyone is online. While this pivot to an online arena presented some initial challenges, the Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics team has noticed some benefits from the shift.

DEF CON27 CTF Participants, faculty and staff from multiple institutions

DEF CON 27 capture the flag competition participants.

“The move online increases the accessibility of the competition to an enormous audience,” said Yan Shoshitaishvili, resident "hackademic" and an assistant professor in the school. “Since everything is done over video streams and online connections, it introduces unique opportunities in archiving the events of the contest to allow others to study it both during and after the conference itself.”

In previous years, the competition scoreboard would be displayed on a screen — this year's spectators will have real-time viewing of the game and the hackers participating.

“This is the world championship of capture the flag competitions and is a great way to look at different aspects of security,” said Giovanni Vigna, capture the flag competitor and professor of computer science at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

“Anticipating what the organizers had cooked up each year, finding out what the problem was, and whether I could get it solved before the end … was a challenge,” said previous DEF CON capture the flag organizer Chris Eagle, senior lecturer at Naval Postgraduate School.

Learn more about ASU's commitment to cybersecurity education.

Oliver Dean

Manager of Marketing and Communications, Knowledge Enterprise, Global Security Initiative


Zócalo Public Square, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County present ‘When Women Vote’ series

Three-part event to launch with an exploration of the evolution of women’s protests

August 4, 2020

Through tears and tear gas, for voting rights and driving rights, the history of women and protests has been long, inspiring, strong and terrifying. 

Nevertheless she persisted.  Download Full Image

In commemoration of this year’s centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Zócalo Public Square and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM) will present a three-part livestreamed event that will highlight the past, present and future of women in protest, power and progress.

“When Women Vote: A Zócalo/Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Event Series" will commence Aug. 20 with a dynamic discussion around the question, “How Have Women’s Protests Changed History?”

From the thousands-strong Women’s March on Versailles of 1789 to the female-founded Black Lives Matter movement, women have been on the front lines of social and political movements for centuries and continue to carry the message that there is still plenty of work to do. How have women risen up collectively to create change and influence broader movements in the process? What has made women particularly effective protesters, and what ideas have women come up with that have changed the art of protest? Activists and scholars will address these and other questions at the launch of this dynamic virtual series.

“One hundred years ago women demonstrated their power to effect political and societal change, and women are again on the front lines of protest and on the precipice of making history,” said Moira Shourie, executive director of Zócalo Public Square. “This is an important moment to create a space to broaden this dialogue and document this movement in real time with our event partners at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.”

Zócalo’s “When Women Vote” discussion series coincides with the launch of the NHM initiative “Rise Up L.A.: A Century of Votes for Women” that will feature the unveiling of an online exhibition on Aug.18, along with the video premiere of interviews for the NHM Oral Stories ethnographic project and a full exhibition of historical objects at the museum when it reopens in the fall.

“We are pleased to be partnering with Zócalo to mark the occasion of the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment with a timely and relevant series of discussions over the next three months,” said Lori Bettison-Varga, president and director of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County. “Los Angeles has a particularly compelling story within the national context of women’s right to vote and many of our current civic leaders have played a critical role in fighting for equality for decades.” 

Conversations in the “When Women Vote” series will continue on Sept. 16 with the question “Why Don’t Women’s Votes Put More Women in Power?,” followed by a third installment, “What Are Today’s L.A. Women Fighting For?” on Dec. 3. 

All events will be livestreamed across a number of platforms. Zócalo's YouTube stream will also include a moderated live chat in real time. Like all Zócalo programs, they are entirely free and open to the public. 

Get more information on the “When Women Vote” series and register for the event.

Suzanne Wilson

Sr. Media Relations Officer, Media Relations & Strategic Communications