Grab your popcorn to watch the fierce competition. Both the blue team and the red team are trying to gain the upper hand with every move. After facing challenge after challenge, and getting past the defense, the red team scores a win! You may or may not be thinking “Touchdown!,” but this isn’t football–it’s a Cybersecurity competition!
And for people like Justin Applegate, it’s an enjoyable pastime that pays off. The undergraduate cybersecurity student has been drafted into the US Cyber Games team for Season III. He was also on the team last year, which is specifically selected based on individual performance in the US Cyber Games. Justin has plentiful experience with cyber competitions. He has completed around 90 Capture the Flag (CTF) competitions, which revolve around recovering a string of code by hacking into a website, file, or cryptographic algorithm. These competitions are sometimes done as a team and sometimes done individually.
As part of the BYU Cybersecurity Student Association, Justin is very involved with CTF competitions at BYU. The association hosts a CTF event at the close of each semester for any students who would like to compete. Although the CTF’s at BYU are mostly joined by Cybersecurity and Computer Science students, Justin shares that students from Engineering, English, and even Philosophy participate, so no one should feel deterred from joining in the competition. Justin also competes on BYU CSA’s Capture the Flag team, which participates in competitions about once a month.
Justin hasn’t always had a love for cybersecurity, however. In high school, he was involved in some programming, and was initially planning on majoring in Computer Science. He shares that “ I reached the point in high school where I realized I wanted something that uses code but is different. And I thought hacking sounds cool, I didn’t know if it was something I actually wanted to do at that point, but I just tried it. When I got back from my mission, I switched to cyber and got involved in CTF’s and I was like ‘That’s it you got me sold. That’s what I want to do.’”
The US Cyber Games start out with a free week-long Capture the Flag competition, which Justin placed 2nd in this year out of 1995 participants. The participants who have the highest scores at the end are invited to the US Cyber Combine, when they will spend two months honing their skills through learning challenges, exercises, and competitions. At the close of the Combine, a small number of participants are drafted into the US Cyber team, which will represent the United States and compete in 2024 at the International Cybersecurity Championship (IC3).
This is the second year in a row that Justin will be competing in the IC3. The US Cyber team will spend the next eight months preparing for the in-person championship. During those eight months, the team learns one another’s strengths and how to utilize everyone’s unique skills in challenges. The IC3 has been held in Athens, Greece and San Diego, California in the past. This upcoming year’s location has not yet been announced.
Justin is excited to compete in the games this year and see what new changes are in store. “Every year we get more and more talented people to join the games who are absolutely cracked at what they do. When you’re with a bunch of other people who are very intelligent and you are trying to solve hard problems that you’ve never encountered before, that’s motivating. So being around those people and having such high-level competition, I really enjoy it. It pushes me the most.”
Justin also recently placed 1st in SAINTCON's 2023 Hacker's Challenge. “I love what I do. I love spending time on it,” he says. Justin currently has a scholarship with the Department of Defense, where he will go to work after he graduates in April. In his job, he will be taking a more defensive role in cybersecurity.