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hacking competition
T hroughout the computer room, the continuous click-clack sounds of fingertips running deftly over the computer keyboard can be heard. With eyes glued to the screen, teams of programmers try to outsmart each other while maintaining their own security defenses.

While this could describe a determined group of hackers looking to break into sites for social or financial gain, the gathering is actually the International Capture the Flag Competition, a hands-on experience for college students and others held annually at UC Santa Barbara.

“Computer Science is better learned through hands-on approach,” explained Professor Vigna, who is a faculty member of the Computer Science department and director of the Center for CyberSecurity at UC Santa Barbara.

The iCTF Competition is a multi-site, multi-team hacking contest in which teams compete independently against each other through live exercises. This prime example of the hands-on experiences students receive and can participate in on campus helps UC Santa Barbara breed hero hackers, those who battle to prevent harmful attacks on computer networks.

In these live exercises, the teams are given security problems where they must access, fix, and defend. All the while, they must use that same knowledge to breach opposing teams’ security defenses, hence capturing the “flag.”

The contest, which can go on for eight hours non-stop, originated in 2001. The iCTF became an international competition in 2004, and now boasts sponsors, such as Lastline, which provides malware defenses to companies.

Professor Vigna finds the iCTF Competition is both an educational and effective way to challenge computer science students. “First, it motivates students. Competition fosters innovation, creativity and commitment. Second, it increases the visibility of our education projects. In general, the security education at UCSB is of enormous value, we have some of the best researchers in the world. Third, it allows us to collect data to use for experiment,” he said.

Despite hackers’ portrayals in movies, the cat-and-mouse activity at the competition is less visually dynamic, involving hours of focused analysis and testing.

“There is a romanticization of the hacking community and this is largely in part due to Hollywood not being able to convey a realistic portrayal. Hacking is oftentimes a screen of text and scientific tests, almost like solving a riddle. It is not nearly as exciting as Hollywood makes it seem,” Professor Vigna said.

Sometimes, it’s only possible to identify heroes by the glow of their computer screens.

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