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Cybersecurity competition challenges next generation of security experts

September 30, 2021

ASU's Global Security Initiative wraps up Capture the Flag competition at DEF CON

Every year, the gladiators of hacking meet to sharpen their skills and compete in the world’s most elite digital coliseum — DEF CON.

A pillar of the cybersecurity industry, DEF CON is one of the world’s largest hacking conventions, with its first event taking place in 1993. It offers hands-on hacking opportunities, workshops and presentations from government, industry and education experts in the field. Attendees included those interested in protecting software computer architecture, digital infrastructure and anything vulnerable to hacking.

Since 2018, faculty, students and staff with the ASU Global Security Initiative’s Center for Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics have organized DEF CON’s signature event, the Capture the Flag competition, which has multiple security challenges that competitors must identify and resolve. Hundreds of teams from all over the world compete each year to make the final round, with 16 teams emerging as finalists.

“Our goal is to identify the best hackers on the planet. We designed this competition to demonstrate just that,” says Adam Doupé, director of the Center for Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics and associate professor in ASU’s School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence.

Through the Capture the Flag event, Arizona State University has helped thousands of people develop an adversarial mindset — an understanding of how an adversary thinks, what information is valuable to them and what sort of tactics they may deploy. This knowledge is crucial in today’s world where cybersecurity professionals need to identify vulnerabilities before bad actors do.

With so much of our lives taking place online, cybersecurity is everyone’s concern."

– Sally C. Morton, executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise at ASU

DEFCON poster

DEF CON’s Capture the Flag (CTF) is an example of putting ASU’s mission of creating social impact and helping learners build the knowledge and skills needed to thrive in today’s workforce into practice.

“The university has a huge appetite for real impact, and one challenge we face in academia is showing that ideas being explored are relevant — DEF CON allows us to do that,” said Yan Shoshitaishvili, Center for Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics researcher and assistant professor at the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence. “ASU is the top university to attend for cybersecurity. The people in charge of the ‘Olympics of hacking’ are also professors you can learn from.”   

This year’s DEF CON, which was held in Las Vegas on Aug. 5–8,  concludes ASU's hosting of the Capture the Flag competition, as organization of the event rotates every few years. In 2020, the team pivoted to a fully virtual environment due to COVID-19. This year, the event became half remote, half in person.

“The team persevered, and I am proud to call this our last year hosting DEF CON CTF,” Doupé said.

As the United States continues to see threats to the nation's security and infrastructure, ASU professors have found that this competition brings to light just how much impact education and research can provide.

“With so much of our lives taking place online, cybersecurity is everyone’s concern. By organizing one of the world’s premier cybersecurity competitions, the university’s Global Security Initiative demonstrates the importance ASU puts on solving problems that affect everyone, all while training the next generation of security experts," said Sally C. Morton, executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise at ASU.

Doupé said, “We try to translate academic research into practical application, which is where we’ve seen some of the best ideas and techniques disseminate. It’s very difficult to apply a theoretical concept from an academic paper until you’ve actually done it.”

One distinctive characteristic of the Capture the Flag competition is that despite the high caliber of competitors, anyone can try these hands-on challenges. The game’s architects are dedicated to the philosophy of applying theory to everyday situations and providing these kinds of advanced skill-building opportunities to anyone who is interested. To accomplish this, they have uploaded challenges used in the tournament to for easy access.

“When we look back at the history of DEF CON CTF, the same techniques and challenges we do now will be standardized five to 10 years from now for anyone in cybersecurity,” Doupé said.

Student competing in Capture the Flag, DEF CON 29

A Capture the Flag participant. Photo from

Organizers are embedded within ASU’s network of cyber educators, and the Global Security Institute team tailored competitions from their own areas of expertise. Over the four years of the institute's involvement, 3,229 teams from around the world competed in the Capture the Flag qualifying and finals, logging 276 hours of active game time. ASU faculty, staff, graduate students and external collaborators created 176 custom challenges.

Zion Basque, an ASU student pursuing a PhD in computer science with a focus on cybersecurity who competed at DEF CON29, aims to be the best of the best hackers while making the world a better place with his technical skills.

"The competition really puts your field into perspective. Engaging with and against world-class hackers makes you understand just how much this field has to offer,” Basque said. “As a PhD student, publishing papers is not enough. I believe good security should be applied to real-world situations. I am inspired by everything at DEF CON, helping the community and working hard toward my dreams.”

The Global Security Institute will continue to stay connected to the Capture the Flag community by inspiring DEF CON collaborators and competitors.

“We wanted our last year to be exceptional — pulling out all the stops on the novelty and scale of our challenges,” Shoshitaishvili said. “I am passionate about what DEF CON represents: an opportunity for aspiring hackers to find resources and inspiration.”

Shoshitaishvili and Doupé host a podcast exclusively focused on CTF competitions called CTF Radio.

The development of technical skills and applied, accessible knowledge is central to DEF CON and Capture the Flag. GSI is committed to increasing cybersecurity literacy for all learners, and DEF CON Capture the Flag has been a key pillar of these efforts.

“The best thing about DEF CON CTF is that it brings people together,” says Debbie Kyle, Center for Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics (CDF) project manager. “As the realm of cybersecurity continues to evolve, players will continue to rise to that challenge, and that’s exactly where CDF wants to be – right in the middle of the action.”

Top photo: The Capture the Flag team at DEF CON 29.

Oliver Dean

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


Real estate developer's donated ranch aids university's mission

Real estate gifts are increasing because of the benefits they offer for donors

September 30, 2021

Iconic real estate developer Rusty Lyon Jr. wanted to help future generations pursue their educational and professional dreams. One way he did that is through what he knew best — real estate.

Lyon was a real estate visionary who started his career at his father's brokerage, Russ Lyon Realty, after serving as an Air Force pilot in the Korean War. He founded Westcor Companies in 1964 and developed more than 12 Valley malls in his career. Lyon branched into hospitality development and is credited with designing and building the Boulders Resort and Spa and others. A large log home sits among the Ponderosa pines near Payson. The main residence of La Cienega Ranch, a 77.25-acre property donated to the ASU Foundation that was recently sold.

He ran Westcor for nearly 40 years before selling it to shopping center developer Macerich in 2002. He then retired to spend more time at his 77.25-acre La Cienega Ranch at the base of the Mogollon Rim near Payson, Arizona. The ranch was a place to unwind and escape the metropolitan busyness for Lyon, his wife, Rosie, and their children and grandchildren.

Rosie Lyon died in 2008, and once her husband's health declined in 2016 the family donated La Cienega Ranch to the ASU Foundation for A New American University to benefit Arizona State University. Rusty Lyon died several months later.

The foundation's real estate affiliate, University Realty, recently sold the ranch that included nearly 15,000 square feet of livable space among seven homes, a barn with horse stalls, helipad, pond and group ramada for $4.5 million.

Real estate gifts are increasing for universities because of the many benefits they offer for alumni and other donors. From fiscal years 2016 to 2020, public and private U.S. colleges and universities received more than 3,630 real estate gifts valued at $928.3 million from donors, according to survey data from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

"Gifts of real estate may provide donors income, tax benefits and the opportunity to make a difference," said Brad Grannis, portfolio and assets manager for University Realty. "There are several options to donate real estate, depending on when you want to transfer the property and whether money is owed on it."

Over the years, Grannis helped the ASU Foundation receive several real estate gifts, which have funded scholarships and enrichment opportunities at ASU.

For the Lyons, donating the ranch to ASU made the most sense.

"It all depends on each person's estate, but it certainly can have tax advantages," said Scott Lyon, one of the Lyons' sons and founder of Westroc Hospitality. "At the time, the market was pretty soft, and it's such a narrow market for who would be buying a property like that. If they (my parents) sold it, they'd have to pay capital gains taxes. If they kept it in the family, we would have to pay estate taxes on the value of the ranch and not be able to sell it in time before the taxes were due. They eliminated a burden on the family from an estate standpoint."

Lyons' support of ASU

Lonnie Ostrom, former president of the ASU Foundation, has fond memories of the Lyons and their ranch. He and his wife, Martha, became good friends with the Lyons and visited their ranch periodically where they played bridge and enjoyed the property's amenities.  

"They were just really humble, down-to-earth people," Ostrom said. "They were very wealthy, and you'd never know it."

Ostrom recalls taking development officers from ASU's Teachers College — now the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College — to Charleston's Restaurant for lunch, and he'd invite Rosie Lyon to join them.

"She always brought coupons," Ostrom said. "I'd say, 'We're paying for it,' and Rosie would say, 'I know, but this will make it a little less.' She had a great sense of humor, and they loved ASU."

The Lyons were longtime ASU supporters who donated to athletics, W. P. Carey School of Business, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Arizona PBS, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and other units and programs.

Rosie Lyon graduated with a degree in elementary education from Arizona State College, the precursor to ASU. She was inducted into ASU's College of Education Hall of Fame in 2004, and she received the Alumni Service Award in 2006 and became a lifetime member of the ASU Alumni Association. She served on the executive committee for the ASU Campaign for Leadership from 1995 to 2001 and was a member of the Adopt A Devil Program.

Rusty Lyon served on the ASU Foundation and the University Research Park boards and was active with the university for a while, Ostrom said.

La Cienega Ranch history

La Cienega Ranch – named after a ranch in Rosie Lyon's family – was a summer retreat for the Lyon family from the mid-1980s until 2016 when they donated it, said Scott Lyon, who toured the property with his parents when they first saw it.

"My mom, Rosie, it was really her gig," he said. "Dad loved being there when he was there, but she had a soft spot for it."

There was an old post office at the site of the tack room until it burned in 1990 in the Dude Fire, which devastated more than 24,000 acres, destroyed more than 70 structures and killed six fire crew members. The other structures at the ranch remained, but the surrounding ponderosa pine forest was ravaged by the flames.

"That fire really broke my mom's heart at that time," Scott Lyon said. "They stuck it out. They continued to improve the property."

Two homes, a maintenance garage and a barn with tack room were built on the property following the fire.  

One of the original structures at the ranch, called the Gingerbread House, served as a primary residence until the Lyons built the more than 3,700-square-foot rustic lodge in 1986 that was designed by Bob Bacon, architect for the Boulders Resort and Spa in Scottsdale. The Gingerbread House was built in approximately 1880 and was actually two historic homes that were later connected together to make one log cabin, Scott Lyon said, adding that he, his wife and daughters stayed there several times.

He and his four daughters have "super fond memories" of La Cienega Ranch and spending time in the area hiking, exploring and horseback riding.

The Lyon family's generosity will enable University Realty to invest in real estate for the benefit of ASU.

The family wanted their gift to benefit real estate-related opportunities, given their involvement in the industry, Grannis said, adding that real estate gifts to ASU can be designated for any cause the donor chooses.

"Donors receive a charitable deduction for the appraised value of their property and forgo the expense of closing costs," said Frank Aazami, broker with Russ Lyon Sotheby's International Realty who represented University Realty in the sale of the ranch. "The donation of appreciated real property to the foundation is a wonderful way to provide enhanced benefit to donors.”

His colleague Erika Sahagun Dickey added that escalating land prices have many owners assessing their options.

"Real estate gifts of appreciated property potentially save significant capital gains tax and can increase the after-tax impact of your charitable giving," she said. "They are a great way to rebalance your property portfolio and support the university in the process."

To learn more about real estate gifts to ASU, contact Brad Grannis at 480-965-8098 or or your development officer.

Michelle Stermole

Senior Director, Public Relations and Strategic Communications , ASU Enterprise Partners