iCTF2011 experience

Yesterday I participated once again to the iCTF organized by UCSB. For everybody who does not know what this event is about:

The Capture The Flag contest is multi-site, multi-team hacking contest in which a number of teams compete independently against each other.
In traditional editions of the iCTF (2003-2007), the goal of each team was to maintain a set of services such that they remain available and uncompromised throughout the contest phase. Each team also has to attempt to compromise the other teams' services. Since all the teams received an identical copy of the virtual host containing the vulnerable services, each team has to find vulnerabilities in their copy of the hosts and possibly fix the vulnerabilities without disrupting the services. At the same time, the teams have to leverage their knowledge about the vulnerabilities they found to compromise the servers run by other teams. Compromising a service allows a team to bypass the service's security mechanisms and to "capture the flag" associated with the service.
For the past three years (2008, 2009, and 2010), new competition designs have been introduced. More precisely, in 2008 we created a separate virtual network for each team. The goal was to attack a terrorist network and defuse a bomb after compromising a number of hosts. In 2009, the participants had to compromise the browsers of a large group of simulated users, steal their money, and create a botnet. In 2010, the participants had to attack the rogue nation of Litya, ruled by the evil Lisvoy Bironulesk. A new design forced the team to attack the services supporting Litya's infrastructure only at specific times, when certain activities were in progress. In addition, an intrusion detection system would temporarily firewall out the teams whose attacks were detected.  (from here)

iCTF namely: "international Capture The Flag" is only one of the many capture the flags (FTC) happening over the year. Here you might find some of the most famous ones. This year iCTF was organized in a amazing way, plenty challenges (to get money), and plenty services to exploit (to get flags in order to convert money into points). Finally the winners were We_0wn_Y0u while a brand new team named "More Smoked Leet Chicken" got the second place.


I've been involved in iCTF competition for several years, and this time it has been a very good organized one, but as you might see, especially if you have participated to some of them over the past years,  current iCTFs tend to go more and more far away from the original concept of hacking school. At the beginning CTFs were organized as simple challenges, in which participants should solve different kind of problems in order to get the flag. For example teams should solve problems like: forensic, reverse engineering, trivial questions, patching bugged code, etc. All these problems were very close to what is the global concept of cracking.  Some years later the so called "offline CTFs" became what we call nowadays the "online CTFs" where hacking teams fight each other by pawning the attacked team's online services in order to get the flags. This kind of challenges are pretty close to what people call hacking. 

Yesterday, everything was much more complicated. "Offline challenges" to get money (the "cracking" side of the hacking competition). "Online attacks" to convert money into points (the hacking part of the hacking competition) and a linear function that modified the value of the money depending on several parameters. In other words, if you got 100 dollars and you want to change them, the value of the change from dollars to points was different depending on the current value of the given function. So, if you got a lot of money but if you don't submit them in "the right way", you are going to loose them. This was more like a linear problem solving. The result was that pretty good hacking teams, pretty good to solve challenges and pretty good to attack services got high amount of money, but since not prepared to solve dynamic linear programming problems got very very low scores. The result has been that pretty good hacking teams not reached hight score, this happened because some of the good teams were not prepared to solve linear programing problems during the runtime competition.

In my personal point of view (which of course it could be wrong) CTFs are getting harder and harder but not in the direction of hacking, in the direction of multi-disciplinarity. In other words, rather then making more and more difficult  "cracking" challenges or "hacking" services, CTFs are increasing  the difficulty by increasing the number of "things to do" during the competition. So CTFs are not working to increase the quality of hacking but are working to increase the quantity of taksI am not saying that this is bad. Not really.... don't write me emails about that. After all CTFs have been made to teach people security,  and more different people CTFs can involve more reached is the original scope. But again, following this way, the risk is to promote the quantity (of thins to do, of people, of tasks, etc..)  rather then the quality (of hacking). Since many of the participants will be hired from companies in order to solve security related jobs, assuring the quality is an important goal.

This has been a great Capture the flag challenge, Good job UCSB security team !!