PACTF Attracts Thousands of Hacking Afficionados Worldwide

1,000 competitors across the world will participate in the 2017 Phillips Academy Capture the Flag competition (PACTF), an annual online computer security competition for middle and high school students. Divided into two rounds, PACTF Round 1 “Bartik” started on April 16th and will end on April 23rd, while Round 2 “Boole” will take place April 24th to 30th. The organizing committee will offer over $20,000 worth of prizes this year to its participants for both their accomplishments and participation, according to their website.

Yatharth Agarwal ’17, one of the students who launched PACTF, wrote in an email to The Phillipian, “Would you rather let someone read your mind or your phone? Think carefully, because today, your electronic devices might know more about you than you yourself: your location history 24/7, banking and health details, and everything in your photos and notes from years ago — all preserved in mint, pristine condition.”

“Fear this age or hail this, but the world is becoming increasingly digital, and that means that keeping your data safe is more important than ever. Learning about cybersecurity is the first step to protecting that data,” he wrote.

PACTF originally began with support and sponsorship from the Abbot Academy Association, the Nest, the CyLab Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, and the Hariri Institute for Computing at Boston University.

Tony Zhaocheng Tan ’17, another student host of the event, said, “A few years ago, we were inspired to launch our own competition after participating in several cyber­security competitions hosted by universities and high schools. At the time, there were surprisingly few CTF competitions available, and even fewer CTFs geared toward the high school level.”

“PACTF aims to fill this gap with the primary goal of educating students about computer security and sparking their interest in the field. By creating interest in information security and computer science, PACTF will encourage the use of technology to solve problems and underscore the importance of proper security practices on the Internet,” he continued.

This year’s PACTF will be run by the Andover Techmasters club under the guidance of Maria Litvin and Jadrian Miles, both Instructors of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science at Andover, and the sponsorship of Amazon, DigitalOcean, and J.P. Morgan.

“We, the PACTF team, collaborate to write the competition problems. Each of us has our own specialties, such as Cryptography, Binary Analysis, and Web Security, and together we are able to come up with a variety problems. Furthermore, we strive to provide problems ranging from introductory to advanced, so that everyone can participate in the competition,” said Tan.

Litvin had introduced the contest to Andover students in 2013 and to other schools throughout 2014 and 2016. She helps form the teams and is their self-proclaimed cheerleader and monitor.

“As the advisor of the Computer Science Club at [Andover] for many years… I aim to introduce a great variety of CS activities and contests to our students, then let them run with it, helping with advice and logistics along the way. Students do all the work… I helped with advice and helepd promote PACTF to other CS teachers on professional listservs and social media,” wrote Litvin in an email to The Phillipian.

Miles McCain ’19, former participant and current competition organizer, believes that PACTF engages participants in a broader discussion of Internet infrastructure systems by focusing on skills related to pattern recognition than merely technical hacking skills.

“PACTF is unlike a lot of other CTF competitions in that it’s not solely focused on breaking complex systems… I’m hoping that the participants will finish PACTF with a better understanding of the Internet infrastructure as a whole, various cryptographic ciphers, and a generally improved understanding of how the digital world works,” said McCain.

“We are only becoming more and more reliant on technology and…it’s important that everyone knows how to defend themselves, and understand the various attacks that are made every day,” he continued.

PACTF hosted an event on Thursday, April 20th, at the Nest to explain the PACTF competition and encourage on campus to participate in challenges by forming teams with peers and discussing problem solving strategies.

Tan hopes to continue the event’s success from last year. He wrote in an email to The Phillipian, “When some participants told me that this competition had led them to discover a previously-unknown interest in cybersecurity, I knew that PACTF 2016 was successful in introducing students to this field. I was thrilled to have inspired others, and that is why we are hosting PACTF 2017 — to continue promoting computer science and information security among middle and high school students.”