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At a time when the need and demand for cybersecurity expertise is at its highest, Carnegie Mellon University’s hacking team won its fourth “World Series of Hacking” title this weekend at the DefCon security conference in Las Vegas. With four titles under their belt, the team has more wins than any other team in the 21-year history of the international competition. 

“The problem-solving skills required to win these contests mimic those needed by governments and businesses alike to anticipate and prevent cyberattacks,” says David Brumley, the director of Carnegie Mellon’s CyLab Security and Privacy Institute, and a faculty advisor to the team.

The problem-solving skills required to win these contests mimic those needed by governments and businesses alike.

David Brumley, Director, CyLab, Carnegie Mellon University

This year’s competitor field consisted of 15 teams from more than 10 countries. To earn a spot at the table, each team had to win a series of qualifying competitions that were held over the past year. Carnegie Mellon’s team, the Plaid Parliament of Pwning, was granted a spot for being last year’s champions.

For the past 21 years, teams of hackers from scores of different countries around the world have qualified for and competed in DefCon’s digital “Capture the Flag” competition. Over the course of the three-day competition, teams try to break into competitors’ servers while protecting their own. During successful breaches, teams grab virtual “flags” and earn points.

“More now than ever, the skills used in this competition are becoming more relevant because cybersecurity is impacting all of our lives,” says Tim Becker, a team captain and fourth-year computer science student. “It’s important that people have a place like this to hone their skills. The more we practice, the better prepared we’ll be in the real world in dealing with actual cyberattacks.”

Becker launched his hacking career as a high school student in 2013 after participating in CyLab’s “picoCTF,” an online capture the flag competition for middle and high school students.

“When I was a high school senior, I was competing with some friends and we didn’t expect to do very well. But after the first day of the competition, we were in the top 10,” Becker says. “That’s when I realized, maybe we’re pretty good at this.”

Becker’s team ended up finishing third overall in the 2013 competition, and that set him off to study computer security in college. Four DefCon wins later, Becker is on track towards a career in cybersecurity.

The Carnegie Mellon hacking team formed in 2009 and began competing in DefCon’s Capture the Flag competition in 2010. The team previously won the contest in 2013, 2014, and 2016.