The world’s largest hacking competition, hosted by Carnegie Mellon, launches tomorrow

Daniel Tkacik

Sep 26, 2019

Five students on laptops at a table

Source: Ryan Strutin

Students at the International School of Stavanger in Norway participate in picoCTF 2017.

These days, if you ask a kid what they want to be when they grow up, they might respond, “A computer hacker.” And that’s a good thing, given the current need for more cybersecurity professionals.

That’s the motivation behind picoCTF, a free, online cybersecurity competition aimed at middle and high school students created by security experts in Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab. This year’s competition launches tomorrow and will run the following two weeks, concluding October 11.

The competition is widely known as the largest hacking competition in the world, having drawn over 150,000 participants since its initial launch in 2013. Over 14,000 people have already registered for this year’s competition.

“Our long-term goal is to enhance the cybersecurity workforce by introducing cybersecurity skills at an early stage through a fun and interactive way of learning,” says Hanan Hibshi, research and teaching scientist in the Information Networking Institute and a faculty advisor behind picoCTF. “Even if students choose a different path than computer security for their career, the game can help create awareness about cybersecurity issues.” 

In previous years, post-competition surveys showed that nearly two-thirds of middle and high school participants claimed that they were "more interested in pursuing a career in cybersecurity" as a result of playing picoCTF.

The game is designed such that minimum equipment is needed to participate. All one needs to play is a computer with internet access.

During the two-week competition, students will solve challenges that start out simple and become progressively more difficult. If students become stuck, the game offers hints to help them learn.

Even if students choose a different path than computer security for their career, the game can help create awareness about cybersecurity issues.

Hanan Hibshi, Faculty Advisor, picoCTF

The challenges, designed to mimic real-life cybersecurity problems, were developed by the Plaid Parliament of Pwning (PPP), Carnegie Mellon's competitive hacking team famed for its 5-time champion status at the DefCon "World Cup of Hacking." The challenges are housed in an interactive game, designed by a team of students in Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center.

Little has been revealed about this year’s game, but back in May, the organizers posted a teaser video to Twitter that shows a retro-style 1980s-era video game in which a pixelated character navigates a virtual world full of computer puzzles and riddles, including problems in binary exploitation and cryptography. The video’s ending reads, “STAY AWAKE.”

Thousands of dollars in cash prizes are awarded to the top teams. Anyone from around the world can register and play, but only U.S.-based middle and high school students are eligible for prizes.