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Hacking away the competition at RETCON

Hacking away the competition at RETCON

David Evenden, the owner of StandardUser Cyber Security, answers a contestants question during the competition on Saturday.

Hacking away the competition at RETCON
March 26
19:27 2018

The large, lofty room with concrete floors and fluorescent lights was filled with men who sat across from laptops and a giant scoreboard. They sat for hours Saturday evening, absorbed in small computer screens, stopping only to take a drink of the free beer or to eat complementary chips.

On the table at the entrance of the building was a sheet of paper which read: You are not allowed to target or attack any IP addresses in the off-limits list. You are not allowed to target or attack other contestants’ computers. You are not allowed to target or attack Stoke Coworking Infrastructure (this is a crime). You are not allowed to change the passwords of existing accounts in the network. You are not allowed to attack the scoreboard.

These were just a few simple rules for the room full of hackers.

RETCON is a hacking competition where contestants hacked their way through an exploitation platform that consisted of four networks, 25 computers and more than 150 vulnerabilities over a four-hour period. The competition offered prizes for the top three competitors with a grand prize of $500.

“We call them CTF’s, or capture the flag,” computer science senior Bobby Kim said. “You have to get into the host network, break into that network and get what’s called a flag. That flag could be a string of numbers, a word or a bunch of words. You get that and turn it in for points.”

The event was hosted by StandardUser Cyber Security as a way to advertise in the Denton area and to give local cyber enthusiasts a fun competition in which to participate. The company has been located in both Denver and Washington, D.C., but recently moved to Denton because of family. They focus in the intelligence community, foreign intelligence activity and counter-terrorism.

RETCON is the first event the company has hosted in the Denton area, although they have hosted similar events elsewhere. While the competition is for fun, StandardUser Cyber Security must make sure it protects both its own infrastructure and its neighboring establishments.

“Because we are in a shared space, they might think it’s funny to attack something,” said David Evenden, the owner of StandardUser Cyber Security. “Some people in our community think it is funny to do bad things, so we have to make sure we have those parameters in place. For instance, we had one person say they were not going to sign the entry sheet, so they are not here competing.”

David Evenden is the owner of StandardUser Cyber Security, the company which hosted RETCON. Jacob Ostermann

Evenden has had issues with some contestants in previous events. Contestants have been known to attack each other’s computers or the infrastructure itself to get ahead in the game.

“Obviously, we also want to protect our own stuff,” Evenden said. “I don’t want you to hack into my own computer or even try to do that. We have monitoring software that says when we see someone try to do that, we are able to detach that person from the network and say, ‘bon voyage.’ Basically, that’s our rules of engagement. If you break our rules of engagement you know, thanks for coming by, but you’ve got to go home.”

While many of the contestants were students from UNT, several competitors traveled across country in order to participate in RETCON.

Vincent Mints, a system engineer for Charter Communications and intern for StandardUser Cyber Security, drove to Denton from Denver, Colorado, to compete in RETCON.

“I wanted to network with a couple of guys and see if I could make any connections,” Mints said. “See if any recruiters were keeping an eye on the competition, so I figured I would make an attempt to come down here and compete.”

The 12-hour drive paid off when Mints won RETCON and the $500 prize. For several hours, the game was a close tie between many of the contestants, but Mints pulled ahead in the final hour of the event with a huge lead, sealing his victory.

“I think there was some possible server issues David fixed after he did a reboot,” Mints said. “That really gave me the go ahead to continue, but yeah, that’s what was holding us back.”

Mints wasn’t the only competitor that faced a long drive. Levi Terry, Petty Officer 1st Class of the U.S. Navy, drove to Denton from California a day prior to RETCON. He served in the military with Evenden and wanted to hangout for the weekend at RETCON.

“I was a penetration tester for NSA’s Red Team,” Terry said. “That means it was my job to hack into government and Department of Defense systems and networks to find the vulnerable areas — anywhere bad guys could get into our networks. I would exploit these ways, and I’d bring it to the attention of the people managing those domains and tell them what they need to fix and patch up so we could try to improve our defense.”

Terry did not begin his career with any formal education in computer science or desire to become a hacker. He was given the position when he joined the Navy and quickly realized he had a knack for the job.

“It’s just kind of the job I was stuck with in the military and it turns out I was pretty good at it,” Terry said. “I would always find a way into the networks. We would always be successful.”

While both Terry and Kim are currently working toward a degree in computer science at the University of Maryland and UNT respectively, the competitors seem to have learned a great deal of their skills from other sources.

“It started out as a hobby, and then I saw how the market was changing,” Kim said. “Now there is a massive need for security that’s growing with technology. I can make money doing this, and it’s cool calling yourself a hacker even if you don’t know really know too much about it. It’s always good to come to one of these things and learn.”

RETCON was the first hacking competition Kim has ever attended, and he was not disappointed. He feels that learning from a third party is just as important, if not more important, than a formal education.

“I feel like a computer science background from school is definitely helpful,” Kim said. “But I feel like it is more helpful to go off and study on your own because school can only take you so far. This is more like a specialized field, so if you don’t know how to use the tools or you don’t know what you are doing, it’s better to go off and find your own third-party teaching.”

Overall, Evenden sees RETCON as an opportunity and learning experience for people who are interested in hacking and cyber security.

“What we are really focused on is education,” Evenden said. “We really want to educate people on what avenues there are that they can learn and use their skills. We do a lot of work with the FBI. We have people in the FBI that say, ‘Hey, we need someone to figure this out for us. We need you to attack this because someone else did, and we need to know what they did.’ It’s a really safe place for people with nefarious things in mind to apply their skills elsewhere.”

Evenden and StandardUser Cyber Security are hosting a booth at HackUNT on April 6 through April 8, which will feature a $500 prize for whoever can write the best application with cybersecurity in mind. They will also be hosting a larger RETCON in six months, which will feature a different system and new challenges.

Featured Image: David Evenden, the owner of StandardUser Cyber Security, answers a contestants question during the the RETCON competition on Saturday. Jacob Ostermann

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Slade Meadows

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