Hacker tournament brings together world’s best in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS, Aug 17 (Reuters) – A team of hackers from two US universities have won the ‘Capture the Flag’ championship, a competition dubbed the ‘Olympics of hacking’ that brings together some of the world’s best in the field.

In the carpeted ballroom of one of Las Vegas’ biggest casinos, the few dozen hackers who participated in the challenge sat hunched over laptops Friday through Sunday during the DEF CON security conference that hosts the event.

The winning team included participants from Carnegie Mellon University, its alumni and the University of British Columbia.

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The competition involves breaking into custom software developed by the tournament organizers. Participants not only have to find bugs in the program, but also defend themselves against hacks by other competitors.

The hackers, mostly young men and women, included visitors from China, India, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. Some worked for their respective governments, some for private companies, and others were college students.

While their countries may engage in cyber espionage against each other, the DEF CON CTF competition allows elite hackers to meet in the spirit of the sport.

The reward is not money but prestige. “No other competition packs the punch like this one,” said Giovanni Vigna, a competitor who teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “And everyone leaves politics at home.”

“You’ll easily find one participant here going to another, possibly from a so-called enemy nation, to say, ‘You did an amazing job, an incredible hack.'”

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The game has taken on new meaning in recent years as cybersecurity has been elevated to a major national security priority by the United States, its allies and rivals. Over the past decade, the cybersecurity industry has grown in value with the advancement of hacking technology.

Winning the title is a lifetime honor, said Aaditya Purani, a participant who works as an engineer at electric car maker Tesla Inc (TSLA.O).

This year’s competition was broadcast on YouTube for the first time, with accompanying live commentary in the style of televised sports.

The DEF CON itself, which began as a gathering of a few hundred hackers in the late 1990s, was organized in four casinos this year and attracted more than 30,000 people, according to organizers.

On Saturday afternoon, participants in the Capture the Flag competition sat and typed on their laptops while conference attendees streamed in and out of the room to watch. Some attendees ate their meals at the tables, munching on hamburgers and fries while keeping their eyes on the screens.

Seungbeom Han, a systems engineer at Samsung Electronics who was part of a South Korean team, said it was his first time taking part in the competition and it was an honor to qualify.

The competition was intense and it wasn’t easy sitting in the chairs eight hours a day. They took bathroom breaks, he said, laughing, “but they’re a waste of time.”

(This story corrects the university name to University of British Columbia instead of University of California, Santa Barbara, paragraph 3)

Reporting by Zeba Siddiqui in Las Vegas Editing by Matthew Lewis

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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