Being ranked the tenth best Capture the Flag (CTF) team in the world (at time of writing) is a pretty astounding accomplishment.
UBC’s Maple Bacon CTF team earned the impressive ranking after placing first recently in two back-to-back competitions.
On April 15-17, nine team members from Maple Bacon competed online in TAMU CTF (Texas A & M University’s event), earning them a first-place finish. The following weekend, 13 Maple Bacon teammates went on to compete at the b01lers CTF event (hosted by Purdue University) and placed first yet again.
The two 1st-place finishes resulted in their 10th place ranking on the official world scoreboard.
Just like the original game, "flags" are hidden in vulnerable spots (programs or websites) and competitors steal flags from each other or the organizers. CTFs give participants experience in securing a machine, as well as practice conducting and reacting to cyber attacks in the real world.
The right mix of ingredients always leads to success
Although the team has not been practicing all that long together (weekly for a few months), the blend of established members of the club with newer members seems to be the right mix to produce stellar results.
Team Captain Jamie Polintan states the journey hasn’t been easy, and that the two competitions occurred around the same time as final exams. “Our priorities were certainly divided. Naturally, we wanted to have fun with the CTF events, but without compromising our studies.”
Jamie attributes their success at Purdue’s event to the fact that they ‘cleared the board,’ which means they solved every individual challenge. “And we solved many of those challenges first, before other teams.”
However, they hadn’t necessarily expected to win the b01lers CTF. “The competition was tough,” Jamie said. “There were many teams competing for the position, and their skills should not be understated. I was just hoping my team would have fun! But looking at it now, I realize their skillset really is top-tier. I’m glad everyone is getting such great recognition for their efforts.”
Everybody’s welcome at the table
Team member Ray Hua emphasized that anyone can join a CTF event, no matter what their skill level. “The team is comprised of whomever shows up on any given weekend. No barriers, no signups. If any student wants to try out a CTF for the first time, they can just hop on our Discord channel and join whatever event we're competing in that weekend.”
A smorgasbord of benefits
“There are so many interesting things I’ve learned through participating in CTFs,” said Ray. “Like discovering GitHub’s quirks, or how to use Machine Learning to hide messages in English text.”
Jamie agrees the dividends are great. “I’ve competed in quite a few CTFs with this club and it’s given me a wide depth of knowledge in computer security, as well as inspired me in my chosen career path. Through the club, I’ve also connected with recruiters who are privy to the reputation of Maple Bacon, some even seeking me out to speak about job opportunities.”
Maple Bacon was launched in 2019 by CS assistant professor Robert Xiao, the team’s faculty advisor. Jamie joined and became an active member in late 2019/early 2020. She says her growth and the club’s growth has been gradual but steady, yet it wasn’t until their recent first place victories that she fully realized how far they’d come. “It’s all validation that we are proving ourselves to be formidable CTF players on the global scale.”
Dr. Xiao is ecstatic about their standings. “This is an unprecedented result for us. The team finished 47th last year in the world rankings, and 75th the year before that. We’ve never finished first in a contest before, let alone in two!”
What’s next on Maple Bacon’s plate?
The team is preparing for the DEF CON qualifiers and meantime they are competing every week in various competitions. Last year, they placed within the top 25 at DEF CON and are eager to achieve similar results again, if not better. Any student who wishes to join the team for the DEF CON event or any other event, should visit the team’s Discord channel.
The winning team members from the recent first-place finishes are as follows:
TAMU CTF event: Jamie Polintan, Laurence Lee, Jason Ngo, Yiyang Liu, Angus Lim (alumnus), Ming Jiang, Kevin Liu, Ray Hua and Justice James
b01lers CTF event: Jamie Polintan, Laurence Lee, Jason Ngo, Yiyang Liu, Angus Lim (alumnus), Ming Jiang, Kevin Liu, Ray Hua, David Zheng (alumnus), Sam Schweigel, Kevin Zhang, Justice James and Emily Chiu.