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A Beginner's Guide to Capture the Flag Cybersecurity Challenges

Capture the flag (CTF) may bring back fond childhood memories, but in cybersecurity, CTF challenges are sophisticated competitions that can evaluate the individual skills and expertise of your IT team members.

Below, we’ll discuss how capture the flag cybersecurity challenges work and the benefits of adding them to your IT team’s continuous education efforts. 

What Is Capture the Flag Cybersecurity

CTF in cybersecurity is performed with the goal of finding a hidden file or piece of information — the “flag” — in a target environment. The adaptability of CTF challenges makes them a top way to prepare for trending cyber attacks.

Types of CTF Challenges

There are three main types of capture the flag in cybersecurity:

Jeopardy-style CTFs. In a Jeopardy-style CTF challenge, teams gain points for solving tasks in the correct order. These tasks often cover a variety of skill areas, including reverse engineering, cryptography, and more. Different tasks are worth different amounts of points, with complex tasks being worth the most. At the end of the set time, the team with the most points wins the challenge.

Attack-defense CTFs. An attack-defense capture the flag challenge involves pitting two teams against each other. Each team is given a vulnerable system that they must defend while attempting to breach the defenses of the opposing team’s system. The team that is able to breach the defenses and “steal” the flags — text strings — while fending off attacks against their own system wins. This is a great way for teams to experience data breaches in a safe environment. There are variations of this exercise in which multiple teams or individuals must attack and defend.  

Mixed CTFs. The exact rules and structure of mixed CTFs will vary, but usually, these challenges take rules from both jeopardy-style and attack-defense CTFs to create a tailored experience. 

Challenge Topics, Scoring, and Rules for CTF Cybersecurity

CTF Challenge Topics

Most CTF exercises will cover a variety of topics. However, you can pick and choose which areas to test your team. For example, a Web Security Jeopardy-style option will include mostly web security tasks, such as identifying and exploiting a vulnerability within a web application. 

Scoring for Capture the Flag Challenges

For all challenge types, the team or individual with the most points at the end of the exercise wins. However, point values and how you earn these points will vary depending on the challenge and the participants. 

Time Restraints

Participants must solve as many challenges — or capture as many flags — as possible within a given time frame. In some situations, there may be a set amount of time for each task. In other situations, individuals must choose how best to prioritize and spend their time.

Benefits of CTF Cybersecurity

Encourages Ethical Hacking

Capture the flag exercises teach participants to identify and fix vulnerabilities by utilizing their skills creatively. Participation strengthens the organization from the inside out by positively honing their skills, as opposed to black hat hacking.

Mimics Real Cyberthreats

Because well-planned CTF exercises simulate what it’s like to experience a cyber attack, teams can gain critical experience and learn how to protect against threats in real-time. This is also a safe learning environment in which making mistakes won’t harm the organization. 

Offers Continuous Skill Development

CTFs allow participants to refine their technical skills in a fun, safe way. CTF challenges encourage problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity, which can help in several cybersecurity instances for your company. If some IT team members are less experienced, they can be paired with the pros on your team for on-the-job training. 

Empower Your Team Through Capture the Flag Cybersecurity Challenges

Empowering your IT team to protect your organization starts with making cybersecurity knowledge accessible and engaging. 

Interested in attending our next capture-the-flag challenge? Check out our Events page for the latest challenges and other upcoming cybersecurity events.