Hacking: Capture the Flag

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in , , , | Posted on 11:06 AM

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Last week, I had the chance to go to an invitation-only event held at my and the competing technical university. It was a 'bring your laptop' event, so I packed up and went.

In the basement of the engineering building is a medium-sized lab: dim, quiet and completely suited for puzzles. There were only a few people in the room, no more than 13 people divided into teams of their own choosing, from both universities. On the in-room server, as we logged in, were puzzles ranging from fairly simple to painfully diabolical.

Considering that I am not a Computer Science major and have only had a single programming language, I feel fairly satisfied with the fact that I finished a handful of puzzles on my own. Obviously, the puzzles which involved getting past a firewall on a segregated server are currently out of my skill range, but I was pleasantly surprised by the number of puzzles based on classic dilemmas in literature, like the dancing men puzzle from Sherlock Holmes.

My favorite puzzles were of a class called Steganography. In puzzles of this class, an encrypted file is buried inside a JPEG or MP3/4. In order to find the encrypted file, you have to manipulate the image. Sometimes, this is through changing filters in GIMP or Photoshop, and sometimes this is through opening the files in a Hex editor and knowing the address at which is encoding is supposed to end. Once you find the encrypted file, you must figure out how to break the code. Some of these codes are simple transpositions, and others are diabolically difficult pictoral codes. The one which broke my brain was a code made of a language which used bubbles, toward the end of the puzzle set for that kind of puzzle. I suspect the font was a special typeset in Microsoft Word, but by that time someone in the room had attacked my laptop and it was getting intermittant access to the puzzle server, so I shifted to looking over the shoulder of the other people on my team.

Several of the men in the room were assholes, speaking to the male friend I brought with me and belittling me. I expected nothing less, having been around the block a few times. My friend, like the gentleman he is, kept bringing me into the conversation.

Even though some of them were assholes, I still enjoyed the puzzles. They reminded me of being a kid, in one of the 'gifted' courses I had been slotted into. Much of my time in those classes was spent solving logic puzzle after logic puzzle, and I was typically the first to finish.

I forgot how much I had missed those puzzles.

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