As a kid, you may have played a game called “capture the flag,” where opposing teams try to sneak into each other’s territory and retrieve a colored flag in order to win. Capture the flag (CTF) exercise in cyber security operates along similar lines. Essentially, it is a cyber security challenge that tests participants’ ability to find security vulnerabilities in a test IT environment. So how do cyber capture the flag games work, and why are they such an effective way of training beginners in IT security?
What Is Capture the Flag (CTF)?
In cyber security, capture the flag (CTF) is a popular competition and training exercise that attempts to thoroughly evaluate participants’ skills and knowledge in various subdomains. The goal of each CTF challenge is to find a hidden file or piece of information (the “flag”) somewhere in the target environment.
CTF has been gaining in popularity in recent years. According to a 2021 study, the number of CTF events worldwide more than doubled from roughly 80 in 2015 to over 200 in 2020 (ENISA, 2021). Although most competitions occur online, some events are also held in person worldwide.
What Are the Types of CTF Challenges?
There are two main types of CTF security competitions: jeopardy and attack-defense. Jeopardy Capture the Flag rules are simple: competitors must solve a series of IT security challenges, often arranged into different skill areas. These challenges may cover topics such as web application security, reverse engineering, digital forensics, cryptography, and steganography. The other main format of CTF is called “attack-defense.” Each participant or team is given their own virtual machine or network to defend; however, these systems each have their own vulnerabilities that other teams can exploit. Participants must find and take advantage of other teams’ vulnerabilities while defending their own system by detecting and patching its weaknesses.
Why Is Capture the Flag (CTF) Crucial in Cyber Security?
Some of the reasons why CTF cyber security exercises are important include:
- Hands-on skill development: CTF is one of the best ways for cyber security professionals to hone their technical skills, applying their theoretical knowledge to solve real-world challenges.
- Risk-free environment: CTF offers real-world experience in cyber security tools and techniques while taking place in a controlled, risk-free environment where participants can experiment without devastating consequences.
- Collaboration and teamwork: CTF usually requires participants to join forces as a team, helping individuals learn to work together to tackle complex, multistep challenges.
- Networking and recruitment: CTF is an ideal way for professionals to connect and learn from each other and showcase their abilities to potential employers.
How Does Learning Capture the Flag Exercise Help Those Starting a Career in Cyber Security?
Capture the flag cyber security exercises are especially helpful for beginners in cyber security, who can partner up with more experienced professionals on a team, getting their feet wet while learning through observation and acquiring valuable skills. Through their participation in CTF exercises, cyber security beginners can be exposed to a wide range of technical concepts and tools.
Jeopardy-style CTF forces participants to apply skills from many cyber security domains, from web security to cryptography, and become more well-rounded IT professionals. Competitors need to think critically to find vulnerabilities, evaluate cyber attack and defense strategies, and develop creative solutions to problems.
Many employers value CTF experience when looking to hire for cyber security roles. Companies often sponsor CTF events, hoping to network with especially promising participants. Cyber security beginners can receive mentorship, guidance, and potential job opportunities at the CTF event.
Lastly, CTF is a fun and engaging way to promote cyber security as a viable career path. The enthusiasm beginners acquire for cyber security at CTF events can carry over into a real-world role as an ethical hacker, penetration tester, or security analyst.
How Does the Certified Cybersecurity Technician (C|CT) Course Help You?
CTF (capture the flag) exercises are invaluable for cyber security beginners to gain practical experience in a safe, controlled environment. EC-Council’s Certified Cybersecurity Technician (C|CT) program gives cyber security candidates the opportunity to participate in CTF exercises to gain practical experience in cyber security. The C|CT is an entry-level cyber security certification that teaches a wide range of IT security knowledge in subfields such as network defense, ethical hacking, digital forensics, security operations, and more. Graduates of the C|CT program have validated that they have the technical skills to succeed in real-world cyber security careers, such as cyber security specialists, IT consultants, network engineers, and system administrators.
C|CT includes 200 hours of premium video learning content and provides extensive opportunities to hone your knowledge with 85 hands-on practical labs—three times more than any other entry-level certification. In particular, the C|CT certification offers a series of CTF-style critical thinking challenges to accompany each lab exercise. C|CT students don’t just learn cyber security theory—they also put their knowledge into practice in real-world scenarios. Graduates of C|CT will have a track record of success in live cyber range exercises, preparing them for CTF and proving their competencies to employers.
Getting started with the C|CT course is simple: visit the C|CT page on EC-Council’s website.
The C|CT program offers a multi-domain learning environment to prepare students for various cyber security careers. These include:
- Information security
- Network security
- Computer forensics
- Risk management
- Incident handling
Students acquire hands-on practical skills through 85 lab exercises and a live cyber range and then prove their knowledge with a performance-based examination.
The C|CT course is open to all cyber security beginners who want to acquire valuable theoretical and practical skills. EC-Council has pledged $3.5 million to the C|CT Scholarship for Cybersecurity Career Starters, helping approximately 10,000 students with scholarships begin their careers in cyber security. Scholarship recipients need to pay only the exam proctoring and technology fees.
ENISA. (2021, May). CTF Events: Contemporary Practices and State-of-the-Art in Capture-the-Flag Competitions. https://www.enisa.europa.eu/publications/ctf-events/@@download/fullReport
Singh, A. (2020, May 18). GitHub – apsdehal/awesome-ctf: A curated list of CTF frameworks, libraries, resources, and softwares. https://github.com/apsdehal/awesome-ctf
About the Author
David Tidmarsh is a programmer and writer. He’s worked as a software developer at MIT, has a B.A. in history from Yale, and is currently a graduate student in computer science at UT Austin.