Can you hack it?

USF may be competing in a new “sport” soon. But it is not something one would expect: competitive computer hacking.

“My inspiration for the club came from attending the Black Hat/DEF CON conferences in Las Vegas the past few years,” said computer securities professor Jeremy Rasmussen, who will be sponsoring the club. “These are the largest gatherings of computer security experts – a.k.a. hackers – in the world.”

Rasmussen has been teaching a broad range of computer security courses at USF since 2000, focusing on topics such as network security, encryption and security management.

The first informational meeting of the “hacking club” will be Friday at 3:30 p.m. in Room 337 of the Engineering Building.

Assuming all goes as planned, the team will eventually compete in what are called “capture the flag” competitions. Rather than sneaking through the woods to steal flags, those involved will sneak through digital security systems and steal special files. The object of the game is to exploit security weaknesses in the opponent’s computer network while defending your own weaknesses.

“I thought it might be a nice learning experience,” said senior Kenneth Shelton, who is double majoring in computer science and computer engineering. “(Students will) gain an understanding of how a malicious hacker/user thinks, so they will be better equipped to defend against said person.”

The idea of a student group centered on hacking has raised some eyebrows, though.

“Before I started this, I consulted with the Graduate Program Director for the Computer Science and Engineering Department, Dr. Rafael Perez,” Rasmussen said. “He was worried that some people would say that we are encouraging our students to hack into systems by participating in these events.”

Perez said as long as the team participates in legitimate competitions where other institutes of higher learning participate, the team is fine.

There are a variety of hacking competitions across the nation. Many of them include teams from prestigious technological institutions such as the University of California Santa Barbara, Georgia Tech, the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, West Point and the University of North Carolina.One of the larger invitational competitions that USF might eventually participate in is hosted by UCSB.

The UCSB hacking team – known as “Shellphish” – recently won what is considered the “world championship of capture the flag,” the annual DEF CON competition. They competed against teams from the private sector, universities and federal agencies.

Computer security is and will always be a precarious subject with the potential to be misused.

Coincidentally, the DEF CON home page was down at press time.

“It will be my sincere intent to ensure that we clarify this is a ‘learning’ event and not a ‘hacking’ event,” Rasmussen said. “I will require each of the club participants to sign an ethics statement that aligns with the University’s computing policy.”

Perez noted that though a student hacking organization may hone skills that could be misused, students could learn dangerous skills in chemistry or any number of other disciplines.

Shelton said he looks forward to the team hopefully being ready for large-scale competitions by the middle of 2006.