Carnegie Mellon University is set to launch its seventh picoCTF, an online cybersecurity competition run by security and privacy experts in Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab who hope to help generate interest in the field and build a pipeline of talent into the currently-starved workforce.

“This competition is a great introduction to the world of cybersecurity that young students may not receive otherwise,” says CyLab’s Hanan Hibshi, faculty advisor to picoCTF and a teaching professor in the Information Networking Institute. “And while it serves as an intro for many, even highly-skilled cybersecurity enthusiasts have gained a lot from participating.”

picoCTF 2021 begins March 16 at 12 p.m. and concludes March 30 at 3 p.m. ET. Participation is free, and all one needs to participate is a computer with basic Internet access. Anyone from around the world is welcome to participate, but only US-based middle and high school students are eligible for this year’s cash prizes, which total nearly $12,000. 

The competition is widely known as the largest hacking competition in the world, having drawn hundreds of thousands of participants since its initial launch in 2013. Nearly 40,000 people participated in picoCTF’s most recent iteration.

During the two-week competition, participants will attempt to solve a series of cybersecurity challenges that start out simple but become progressively more difficult. If students are unsure about how to solve a challenge, the game offers hints to help them learn.

The challenges are typically centered around a unique storyline. While little has been revealed about this year’s story and game, the organizers posted a video to Twitter that shows a rocket ship traveling through space as extraterrestrial bodies pass by. Participants who do not wish to follow the storyline have the option to solve the challenges without the storyline context.

The challenges, designed to mimic real-life cybersecurity problems, were developed by the Plaid Parliament of Pwning, Carnegie Mellon's competitive hacking team famed for its 5-time champion status at the DefCon "World Cup of Hacking." The challenges are housed in an interactive game, designed by a team of students in Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology CenterOpens in new window.

Those interested in participating in picoCTF may register now by visiting picoCTF.orgOpens in new window.