Computer science students capture the flag

Student working on lab project

Remember playing capture the flag as a kid? Running around on summer evenings with friends from the neighborhood trying to grab the enemy team’s hidden flag and bring it back to your side?

You may be surprised to learn that our computer science students are playing capture the flag, too – only attacking and defending on their laptops.

WMU’s computer science department now is offering a “Capture the Flag” course – designed to grow interest in regional and national student computer security competitions.  The one credit hour course, CS5950, is an introduction to the information security competition and teaches the basic rules of the game.

 “These competitions help students develop the skills necessary to defend computer systems,” said Dr. Steve Carr, chair of the Department of Computer Science. “The events directly translate into job skills.”

He said with the critical need for computer security experts, the course will help students take the foundations in computer science they learn in the classroom and apply those skills in a practical setting.

“Our goal in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences is for our students to be career-ready when they graduate,” he said. “Capture the Flag is one course that helps us achieve that goal.”

The three common types of capture the flag competitions include jeopardy, attack-defense and mixed. Jeopardy-style competitions involve a series of tasks in categories such as forensics, cryptography, web and binary exploitation. Teams gain points for every task they solve, with more difficult tasks receiving more points. In order to go on to the next task, the team must complete the previous task.

With the attack-defense competitions, each team has its own network with vulnerable services. The team has time for patching the services and developing binary exploitation. The organizer of the game then connects all of the participants and competition begins. Each team protects its own services for defense points and hacks opponents for attack points.  Mixed competitions vary in formats and can include both types of competitions in one.

“These are very strategic competitions and we have to carefully plan our modes of attack,” said Colin MacCreery, a master’s student from Battle Creek who is team captain and vice president of the Computer Club at WMU. “In these contests, you are always going to learn about something you don’t know, and the competitions will challenge you.”

Most recently the WMU team competed in a jeopardy-style competition placing 77 out of 245 teams from around the world. It is ranked 140 among all registered teams globally.