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P.A.C.T.F. Competition Hopes To Educate Students in Computer Security

With over 900 teams and 1,660 participants from all around the world, Phillips Academy Capture the Flag (P.A.C.T.F.) is an on-going computer science competition created by students that requires imagination, problem-solving skills, and teamwork.

Started by Sarp Orgul ’16, Cameron Wong ’16, Yatharth Agarwal ’17, and Tony Tan ’17, P.A.C.T.F. incorporates a variety of cryptology, binary, and web problems, all ranging in difficulty, and targets an audience that spans from seasoned competitors to beginners in the coding world.

Tan wrote in an email to The Phillipian, “There are surprisingly few C.T.F. competitions available, and even fewer C.T.F.s geared toward the high school level. P.A.C.T.F. aims to fill this gap with the primary goal of educating students about computer security and sparking their interest in the field.”

Each participating team has a maximum of five competitors, and together they engage in problem sets created by the program directors. Problems gradually increase in difficulty to test the participant’s hacking abilities.

“Their goal is to decipher, break, inject, or do whatever else it takes to locate a (planted) piece of information called a ‘flag,’ which is then redeemed for points. This is generally done by exploiting a vulnerability in, say, the encryption algorithm used to hide the data, or a bug in the password verifier used to hide a certain part of a site,” wrote Wong in an email to The Phillipian. “The goal is for students to learn more about common, and even uncommon, pitfalls in app or site design that can lead to disastrous information breaches.”

After competing in several C.T.F., Agarwal, Orgul, Tan, and Wong were driven to recreate the competition at Andover, differentiating their idea from the original by lengthening its duration and broadening its range of participants.

The P.A.C.T.F. challenges are weeklong, with a total of three challenges lasting throughout April and May. The first round of P.A.C.T.F., “Crypto,” began on April 10 and ended on April 17.

“[Cryptography] problems often start off with a coded text and in order to solve the problem you have to decode that text in English,” said Orgul in an interview with The Phillipian.

“Binary,” the second round of P.A.C.T.F., was carried out from April 18 to April 24.

“In ‘Binary’ problems you are given a computer program. In order to crack these, many times you have to exploit weaknesses in the programming used, which will allow you to use the program in ways it wasn’t meant,” said Orgul.

Finally, the last round of P.A.C.T.F., called “Web,” is currently underway. It began on April 25 and will end on May 1.

“In some ‘Web’ problems, we designed websites with specific weaknesses where programming code can be injected into input fields which will give the programmer more control over the website,” said Orgul. The founding members of P.A.C.T.F. aim to challenge their participants in a fun and creative way. They hope to establish their legacy and turn the competition into an annual occurrence.

“We planned for [P.A.C.T.F.] to be an annual event, and it will come back next year. We think the entire experience of talking and finding sponsors and promoting the event of writing problems and working in a large team to execute something very student run, that is something we learned a lot from and we want other people to experience,” said Agarwal.

If you are interested in learning more about P.A.C.T.F, you can view their website at https://www.pactf.com/.

May 3, 2016