How it went wrong
I have a pretty bad taste in my mouth with NYU after what they have done with CSAW over time. The fact that HSF became a CTF, quality went downhill, and then now non-existent is something that really bothers me. It had felt to me that there was a complete disregard for the exceptional talent pipeline that Nasir/Poly had established for continuing to build out cyber security at NYU. It feels disrespectful to all of the volunteers (you and I included) that worked so hard to not just maintain the quality of the program, but to make it 1% better every year, and make sure everything was in place for it to keep running.
The issue has stemmed from the push of making CSAW an international competition. The student volunteers were burdened with trying to handle this rapid expansion on the fly and the quality of the competition suffered. There was no longer anything “special” about CSAW since you can’t have physical challenges when everything needs to be run in 10 different places. High school students and teachers all experienced this massive drop in quality and care for the competition. CSAW HSF, now CSAW RED, became a massive flop. NYU dropped their golden egg.
This was one of the reasons I decided to drop out of NYU. I was being offered a fantastic job at Uber, while having to fight to try to keep the security lab that special place that made it what it was. We weren’t able to have a two time HSF finalist get accepted into NYU. Most finalists don’t even consider going to NYU as they usually have their sights set on CMU, MIT, etc. A friend of mine, a three time finalist, only decided to go because he would be paid to go to NYU. Another friend would also have been paid, but decided to go elsewhere.
There is no competition on the planet that embraces the spirit of HSF (as it was). CTFs encourage a fire and forget mentality, once you have learned the patterns you need to learn. In fighting to preserve the HSF format, I was repeatedly told that HSF would not scale, and that was the reason why it became a CTF for highschoolers.
I wrote this challenge generator, partially out of frustration, to prove that it was possible to scale a competition that encourages cohesive problem solving skills. And even more importantly, it teaches students how to communicate the work that they have done and rewards them for spending that time. The ex-HSF finalists that I still stay in communication with, who remember how HSF was, are frothing at the mouth at the idea of this competition coming back.
My dream with rebooting HSF is to preserve the “magic” that you feel when you spend a week perusing the evidence, only to look at something for the 10th time and see what you were missing. Or being at finals and being given a phone and a “good luck”. You were the one who showed me how special this competition was. We had facetime, as highschoolers, with real government agents doing this for a living.
I want to have a package that I can give to a community college that has a teacher that cares about cyber security, and show them how to run this for themselves. If we want to improve the cyber security talent pipeline, we have to fight to find those sleeping creative thinkers and give them a sanctuary to practice the dark arts of cyber security. NYU did not fight for this sanctuary, and the program suffered.
The reason I am so passionate about this competition is that it literally has made me who I am. When I applied to colleges, I applied to 13 colleges and only got into UMD and NYU. UMD gave me no scholarship money (even though I gave a presentation to the senior class of UMD’s Cyber Aces program, sponsored by Northrup Grumman, on what it was like to intern there since I had interned at NG for two years). NYU didn’t just give me money for being a finalist, but I talked to Joy (the year before she was let go) and she cared enough to make it remotely financially feasible for me to go there. CSAW brought the best high school/collegiate cyber security talent into the same room, for multiple days, every year. The roommates that I live with are HSF finalists. Because of CSAW, a national network of introverts has been solidified and is bringing the future of cyber security, and I reap the benefits of it.