The world’s largest online cybersecurity competition – picoCTF – will hold its next official competition March 16-30, 2021. The competition, hosted by Carnegie Mellon University CyLab, has attracted hundreds of thousands of participants since its initial launch in 2013.
What is picoCTF?
The competition mimics a digital “Capture the Flag” competition – hence the “CTF” in picoCTF – as participants rush to capture digital “flags” hidden in code, each with an assigned amount of points. Teams are ranked by their accumulation of points, and cash prizes are awarded to the top teams in a variety of competition categories (e.g. middle & high school, college, etc.).
The competition exposes participants to real-world cybersecurity problems written by Carnegie Mellon’s internationally-acclaimed competitive hacking team, the Plaid Parliament of Pwning. The challenges start off at a beginner’s level and gradually become more difficult, attracting both beginners and the most seasoned hackers alike. If players become stuck, the game offers hints to help them learn.
A learning tool for teachers
Because participants can learn as they play, tens of thousands of middle and high school teachers have incorporated picoCTF into their curriculum in recent years.
“I think picoCTF is going to change lives here,” said Anita Johnson, a teacher at Kealing Middle School in Austin, Texas, who had 32 of her students participate in picoCTF in 2018. “It has been a tremendous learning experience for all of us. What surprises and pleases me the most is the level of interest from the girls.”
Building a cybersecurity workforce
Post-competition surveys showed that nearly two-thirds of picoCTF participants were more inspired to pursue a career in cybersecurity as a result of playing picoCTF. That feeds perfectly into the original motivation for developing the competition. With millions of unfilled positions in cybersecurity in the US alone, the demand for cybersecurity professionals remain a top priority in the job market.
“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.”
How to register and play
Registration will open several weeks before the competition begins in March 2021 at picoCTF.com. The game is designed such that minimum equipment is needed to participate. All one needs to play is a computer with internet access, and no software is needed to download.