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State Farm’s capture the flag challenge gives students hands on cybersecurity experience

The decryption of hidden messages and locating of secret files is often relegated to the likes of hackers on the silver screen, but Illinois State University was the site of such computer practices during State Farm’s Capture the Flag cybersecurity challenge.

Fourteen teams composed of 46 students logged in to an online hosting site that presented questions written by State Farm IT professionals on subjects from steganography, the practice of locating files hidden within other files, to cryptography, the study of techniques to secure communication from access by third-party adversaries. Capture the Flag was a Jeopardy-style event, each question worth points ranging from 50 to 1,000. Students clicked on questions under a particular topic to receive instructions and access to any files necessary to complete each challenge, racing to rack up as many points as possible before the deadline, pouring hours of time into the competition over the course of a weekend.

Of all colleges that State Farm collaborated with to provide students the opportunity to expand their hands-on cybersecurity skills with Capture the Flag, Illinois State’s turnout and total points acquired were the highest.

This past October marked the third time that Illinois State has hosted the Capture the Flag competition, and every year student participation has steadily increased. Tal Parmenter, academic services coordinator for the School of Information Technology, chalked up the increase in involvement to Illinois State students’ drive to seek out real-world problem-solving experience.

“It represents initiative, drive, and a desire to succeed,” Parmenter said. “One of the ways we differentiate the School of IT from other programs is by making a strong, focused effort to help students prepare themselves to launch their professional career with experience gained from events like Capture the Flag.”

Henry Laurx, a fourth-year cybersecurity major at Illinois State was a member of the second-place finishing team in the event. Laurx noted that he gained many valuable insights from Capture the Flag at ISU.

“I acquired new skills on subjects that I didn’t even think about before the competition,” Laurx said. “One of the question categories was steganography, where a secret message was hidden within an ordinary message and the team needed to extract it at its destination. This meant familiarizing myself with software that dissects the layers of an image file, which I hadn’t done before.”

As valuable as the computer software skills that Laurx gained were, the life skills of cooperation and time management he honed were just as vital.

“Other than technical jargon, this event taught me about time management and working in a team,” said Laurx. “Managing my schedule properly was crucial, so I could dedicate time to the Capture the Flag challenges. But in the end, I would have been nothing without my teammates: Alex Amarei, Melissa Gatewood, Andrew Turner, and Dominik Lameter. Our placement was a team effort.”

Once the placements were decided, an awards ceremony was held in the State Farm Hall of Business. At the ceremony, State Farm Vice President and Chief Information Security Officer Jim Gottsacker spoke to students about the value of cybersecurity in today’s enterprises and how students could prepare now for a career in cybersecurity.

Glen Sagers, assistant director for the School of Information Technology, said the value of State Farm’s collaboration with Illinois State to set up events like Capture the Flag for students is two-fold.

“First, students have something outside of class that’s a place to showcase what they can do and test themselves,” Sagers said. “Secondly, students get the invaluable opportunity to meet the industry partners that sponsor these programs and interact with practicing professionals.”

Sager said the Capture the Flag event shows State Farm’s dedication to furthering the computing field and exemplifies their commitment to providing students opportunities for learning experiences that go beyond the classroom.

“We do what we can to provide students with experiences like this,” Sagers said, “and having a partner like State Farm work on holding this event is very beneficial to the University.”

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