("Obama's hacking competition" is a slight exaggeration: Obama and David Cameron announced it, but the actual competition was organized by MIT CSAIL, the University of Cambridge, and Leidos, and it was almost certainly MIT's idea. Obama will not be attending.)
I snuck onto the UC Berkeley competitive hacking mailing list a few years ago despite not being a student, and they announced the qualifiers for the Cambridge2Cambridge hacking competition. Despite having almost no pro hacking experience, I participated and came 1st US, 2nd international in the second qualifying round. Now they're shipping me up to Trinity College in Cambridge where I'm going to compete with 109 other folks who also placed. (for up to $4,800 of a $21,000 prize pool) They also pay unconditionally for my flight and housing. (about $2,000)
The competition runs from the 24th to the 26th. You're permitted to work without any breaks at all, even for things like sleep, but you're not encouraged to.
Making matters more complicated, the competition has both an individual round and a team round -- the individual round prizes are worth more. Both rounds run simultaneously in different arenas on campus, so competitors are encouraged to compete in the individual round at the exclusion of the team round. There is a nontrivial transit time in getting between the team round and individual round zones, and teams are encouraged to communicate in person rather than over the wire, so communication will be hard.
Individual round events occur at specific designated times, meaning that individual competitors will be encouraged to abandon their teams even if it's an inconvenient time to do that.
The individual round events range from normal hacking to lockpicking to Core Wars, a really ancient hacking game set in a multitasking mainframe where your goal is to write a program that will terminate every other program before everyone else's programs terminate yours.
The team round is a three-day simulated hacking situation made by Leidos specifically for this event, designed to cover a really broad range of skills. These skills include stuff like figuring out what a program does based only on the compiled code, feeding input to a web application that will cause it to erase its database, logging into a UNIX machine and convincing it to give you superadmin privileges without knowing the superadmin password, figuring out the contents of a file that was deleted because it contained sensitive information, predicting a random dice roll by inspecting hidden state on the system that simulates it.
Those were all real problems from the qualifying round, but I really know very little about what Leidos in particular has cooked up.
We were randomly assigned to teams with godawful names like EthernetEagles, KeyboardStrikers, DatastreamCowboys and AltF4Fighters. Each team has five members -- three rank-and-file (who can be either UK or US), one US captain, and one UK captain. The procedure went like this:
- select the 22 top American scorers (out of 30 selectees) and make each one US captain
- for each of the 22 top UK scorers (out of 80 selectees), assign each to an American top whose solved problems in the qualifying round were really different. Make each of those UK scorers UK captain.
- out of the remaining competitors, assign them in groups of three to each team so that the total score for all teams is about the same.
In theory, this gives each team an equal chance to score. (In previous rounds, all the strongest scorers teamed up and completely swept everyone else out -- that's why they've changed it to a semirandom-selection format.)
Assuming that American hackers are about as good as UK hackers, *not* being in the top 22 American hackers means you are probably pretty weak. (There were 30 US hackers selected to participate in the competition, but 80 UK hackers)
I am the top American hacker of the second qualifying round, but I don't know for sure how I would have compared to those in the first qualifying round. I could be #22 -- but since I outscored all UK hackers except one in the second qualifying round too, I'm probably close to the top.
A team that contains one of the bottom 8 American hackers is more likely to contain a weird supergenius captain to compensate.
The teams confirmed to contain bottom-8 American hackers are
- UNTOUCHABLES (captains Daming from CMU and Mark from Birmingham)
- DatastreamCowboys (captains Azad from Stanford, Varnavas from UCL)
- DOPPLEGANGERS (captains Richard from Berkeley, Izzy from Southampton)
- EthernetEagles (captains Veeral from Berkeley, David from Southampton)
- HackAttack (captains Yian from Berkeley, Tom from Southampton)
The only person who beat me in my qualifying round is skipping the contest.
I know DOPPLEGANGERS' Richard and he isn't that strong. So Izzy is probably fucking terrifying.
EthernetEagles' Veeral scored far worse than me. So David is probably very strong.
One of HackAttack's members canceled and another is an American, so although Tom and Yian are probably very strong, they may not pose a serious threat in the team round.
At least three teams who had a member cancel were originally assigned an American. I have no way of knowing which ones.
How can I watch?
Previous iterations of the contest had a live leaderboard, but I don't know how to access it. I'm going to ask the organizers about this.
Who should I root for?
The following individuals and teams are confirmed by Zekka to be cool dudes:
- Zekka from team UsualSuspects
- Richard from team DOPPLEGANGERS
- Roy from team SHIELD
- Veeral from team EthernetEagles
- Sang from team EncryptionCutters