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BYU Cybersecurity Team Wins DEF CON Competition

A team of seven BYU cybersecurity students recently competed at the annual DEF CON convention in August. Although the students had never participated in any of its international competitions before, the team found numerous virtual flags and subsequently found themselves ranking in first place.

A team of seven BYU cybersecurity students booked seven last minute flights to Nevada. Junior Justin Applegate had suggested they compete at one of the largest and most prominent annual hacking conferences: DEF CON. The event gave competitors four days, August 11-14, to prove themselves. These students would end their summer competing against some of the best hackers from around the world.

The group gathered in Paradise, Nevada, some traveling from Utah and some traveling from as far as Washington, D.C. Continuing to lead, Applegate enrolled the team in the Capture the Flag competition offered by AppSec Village. They called themselves "BYU Cyberia."

The team did not initially have expectations for the competition. No one had attended the convention before, and their competitors would have some of the best hacking skills. These hackers would bring techniques from countries like Germany, China, and Japan. The team thought they would only come back with a learning experience, but Applegate started to think they could do more.

Aside from competing, the team had many opportunities to gain the knowledge they sought. DEF CON hosted workshops, demonstrations, and lectures with advice on cybersecurity and available tools, some of which had yet to be published. The students even met one-on-one with some of the best in the industry. By becoming better hackers, these students could defend more wisely against those who might try to expose the weaknesses in company, banking, and government websites.

“You have to know the enemy. If you don’t know anything about how hackers operate, there’s no way you’re going to be able to defend against them,” Applegate said. “You have to know both sides of the coin.”

Although Meeves had to leave early and could not celebrate the win in person, the team messaged their congratulations and enjoyed their last moments at the convention. From left to right: Justin Mott, Ian Cook, Andrew Sabolsky, Drew Wilson, Steven Palica, and Justin Applegate.
Photo by Justin Applegate

Whenever the team returned to their hotel room, each student would spend hours scouring sites and hardware for "flags" secretly hidden in vulnerable programs. Team member and senior Tanner Meeves estimated that the team must have spent around 40-50 hours working within those four days. BYU Cyberia did not forget that they could also become a target, though. They carefully communicated through code and made other precautions to ensure that other competitors did not steal flags from them.

Most team member's previous exposure to hacking had come from the BYU cybersecurity club. This club strived to create a place for all students to learn and practice cybersecurity, even if they had never done it before. Meeves joined one year ago and credits the club for fostering his cybersecurity involvement. “It’s like this adrenaline rush,” said Meeves. “It is the concept, for me, of being able to solve the unknown. You know, figure it out through trial and error . . . It proves to be very exciting, just to prove to yourself that you can do these things on a computer.”

The supportive school environment had transferred to their hotel room, and BYU Cyberia fell into sync. Students made individual pursuits and came together to break through intricate barriers. Applegate quickly began to believe the team could put pressure on other competitors. He encouraged his team members, ensuring them that they could get more than just a learning experience.

As they continued, the team found more flags and rose toward the top rankings. Eventually, they looked at the online standings and saw it.

1. BYU Cyberia.

They had captured more flags than any other team. Determined to keep their spot, the students continued to spend hours solving challenges. Through the endless nights and screen–staring, the team kept their efforts and spirits high.

“People come and they’re passionate about it, and they love it. They love hacking stuff. They love learning how it works. They love the challenge,” Applegate said. “You’re doing things that no one else has done before—that people have barely even thought of … so, when you find like-minded people who enjoy that challenge, you feed off of each other, and you just get excited.”

By the end of DEF CON, BYU Cyberia had solidified their spot in first place. Team members celebrated in their unexpected achievement! The rest of the conference, they exchanged contact information with other successful competitors and potential employers. These BYU cybersecurity students came open to a new experience, and they left with one of their major's greatest achievements.