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CMU Hacking Team Looks for Win at DefCon

Daniel TkacikTuesday, July 25, 2017

CMU's competitive hacking team, the Plaid Parliament of Pwning, looks to win a fourth title at this year's DefCon cybersecurity conference

At a time when cybersecurity pervades news headlines, it's fitting that a team of cybersecurity experts from Carnegie Mellon University may grab an unprecedented win this weekend in Las Vegas.

Carnegie Mellon's competitive hacking team, the Plaid Parliament of Pwning, looks to win a fourth title at this year's DefCon cybersecurity conference. No other team has ever won more than three times in DefCon's 21-year history of what many refer to as the "World Series of Hacking."

"More now than ever, the skills used in this competition are becoming more relevant because cybersecurity is impacting all of our lives," said Tim Becker, a team captain and senior in the School of Computer Science. "It's important that people have a place like this to hone their skills. The more we practice, the better prepared we'll be in the real world in dealing with actual cyberattacks."

For the past 21 years, teams of hackers from scores of different countries around the world have qualified for and competed in DefCon's digital Capture the Flag competition. Over the course of the three-day contest, teams try to break into competitors' servers while protecting their own. During successful breaches, teams grab virtual flags and earn points.

This year's competitor field will consist of 15 teams from more than 10 countries. All teams had to win a series of qualifying competitions to receive a spot at DefCon.

"The skills and deep knowledge required to win these contests mimic those needed by governments and businesses alike to anticipate and prevent cyberattacks," said David Brumley, the director of Carnegie Mellon's CyLab Security and Privacy Institute, and a faculty adviser to the team.

Becker launched his hacking career as a high school student in 2013 after participating in CyLab's "picoCTF," an online capture the flag competition for middle and high school students.

"I was competing with some friends, and we didn't expect to do very well. But after the first day of the competition, we were in the top 10," Becker said. "That's when I realized, maybe we're pretty good at this."

Becker's team finished third overall in the 2013 competition, and that inspired him to study computer security in college. Three DefCon wins later, Becker hopes to set records.

"Every year, the competition at DefCon is stronger and the challenges are harder," Becker said. "We have a shot, but it's not going to be easy."

The Carnegie Mellon hacking team formed in 2009 and began competing in DefCon's capture the flag competition in 2010. The team won the contest in 2013, 2014 and 2016.

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