What is Capture the Flag (CTF) Training? - FTC Florida Technical College

What is Capture the Flag (CTF) Training?

Are you interested in becoming a hacker but want to learn how to do it ethically? People often talk about hacking as a threat, and there’s a good reason why they feel that way. Hacking attacks are a major cause of financial loss among large and small businesses alike. It’s a threat that every company needs to defend against. However, people often forget that ethical hackers are a part of that defensive effort. These are computer security experts who work within the law. 

What Does an Ethical Hacker Do?

Ethical hackers, also known as white hat hackers, have a similar skill set to malicious hackers. The main difference is how each group uses those skills. Malicious hackers, or black hat hackers, are in it for themselves. They try to break into computer systems to illegally steal data, money, or anything else they can get their hands on. 

Ethical hackers have two main functions. The first is to protect computer systems from malicious hackers. These tasks are similar to what you’d find with standard cybersecurity efforts. Ethical hackers use their hacking knowledge to preempt efforts to break into the systems under their protection. The other aspect of ethical hacking involves active attempts to break into systems. This might seem like a contradiction at first. After all, why would someone without ill intent hack into a protected system? 

Penetration Testing

Penetration testing, also known as pen testing, refers to a controlled hacking attempt that’s authorized by the owner of a network or computer. You can think of it as an especially thorough test of a system’s security, or like flipping a chessboard around to see the strategy from the opponent’s perspective. 

When an ethical hacker performs penetration testing, they try to see what an unethical hacker would see while hacking into a system. The ethical hacker will document what they find so that security on the system can be upgraded. All of this demonstrates a versatile and complex skillset. 

How Does an Ethical Hacker Learn Their Craft?

It’s quite common for hackers to start by teaching themselves how to hack. This was especially common before ethical hacking became popular. There was a time when computers themselves were seen as mysterious. Tutorials or documentation were scarce. This led to experimentation among people who simply loved computers. The hacker subculture got its start from this sense of curiosity rather than greed or malice. 

As ethical hacking became popular, it became an actual educational subject. Today the best hackers have some formal education in the subject. Again, pure curiosity still plays a big part in the educational experience of the average ethical hacker, but it’s something that supplements a formal education. 

A formal education comes from an IT program with an emphasis in cybersecurity. For example, the CompTIA certifications are the best ways for an ethical hacker to prove their skills and preparing for certification fills in any educational gaps that an ethical hacker might have. 

However, there’s also another avenue for the hacker’s overall curiosity. Most hackers understand that pure curiosity and a love of experimentation are among the best motivators. Consequently, this has led to the creation of capture the flag (CTF) training. Capture the flag training is an exciting way to learn and hone your skills while staying within the law. 

What is Capture the Flag (CTF) Training

You might have participated in a real world capture the flag game. It’s a common idea within both the physical world and video games. A flag of some type is either stored in a protected but known location or hidden. It’s up to the people playing the game to retrieve the flag. This might involve an actual run toward the flag, or players might have to solve some riddles or similar tasks to find the flag. 

CTF training is similar in most respects. The main difference is that the flag is digital information. The so-called flag is an encoded string stored within a hidden file or a database entry. During CTF training the hackers follow digital leads as they work their way through protected systems. This can be done as a team activity with multiple flags. Each success will earn the team points, with the point value of each flag determined by the difficulty involved with retrieving it. 

CTF training is gamification of cybersecurity education. Basically, the educational process is turned into a fun game where ethical hackers can learn as they go. This is a great way to help ethical hackers apply their skills to real-world situations. This process is further explored through case studies that have instructions. The end result is a fun way of learning that can solidify your education while also spurring further growth. 

What Is the Purpose of CTF Training?

Capture the flag training enables participants to learn and master new hacking skills. Ethical hackers participating in CTF training are often called on to use their skills in innovative new ways. It’s the difference between being competent with hacking tools and fully mastering them. 

During CTF training everyone has their own style of hacking. Sometimes this meshes perfectly with a team, other times people do better solo. However, one of the strong points of CTF training is that both approaches can be tested. 

Ethical hackers have a chance to try both methods. Solo hackers can learn how to work better within a team. Meanwhile, people who are usually team players might have a chance to try it solo. Being forced out of your comfort zone can be a fantastic learning experience. It’s all about being open to what new experiences have to teach you. 

The point system also helps ethical hackers evaluate their skillset. What makes a challenge easy or difficult? Did it require advanced skills, or did you master that particular skill set? It’s an easy question to answer when the challenges come with a points system. By making challenges into a game, it becomes a lot more fun to increase point totals. 

What Are Some Types of CTF Competitions?

Capture the flag events come in many different forms. CTF training can be inherently unpredictable. You never know what the event will entail, but there are five main categories of CTF competition and training. 


An attack-defense scenario involves multiple teams. Each team works with a server that’s specially set up and audited before the competition. This ensures the game will have specific vulnerabilities that can be exploited. Of course, the teams themselves aren’t aware of the scenario in advance. This makes it a straightforward hacking competition that comes down to speed. The faster and more accurate a team is the better their chance of winning. 

Red Team/Blue Team

As the name suggests, this capture the flag competition divides hackers into two groups, red and blue. The red team runs offense while the blue team works on defense. The red team tries to hack into systems and get flags. Meanwhile, the blue team tries to monitor this process and defend against the hacking attempts. A red team/blue team competition is set up with competing groups in mind. 


The term Jeopardy refers to the TV show of the same name. Much like the show, this competition filters tasks into specific categories. This is also a form of CTF which is easier to compete as a team. Everyone has their own background which will fit into different categories. This doesn’t mean that it’ll be easier to solve specific problems as a team. It means that hackers have a better chance of learning new techniques while everyone works in a category they are comfortable with.

Jeopardy competitions also drive home the importance of various techniques. Skilled hackers working in unfamiliar situations might find they need to rely on their teammates. In doing so they’ll learn that every type of hacking skill is useful. 

Network Packet Capture

Network packet capture is as an attempt to catch a digital ball in flight. Hackers are set up against a transmission and need to retrieve data from it. This can put any number of skills to the test. Completing this competition involves both speed and finesse. 

Mixed CTF

Mixed CTF competitions combine two different forms of capture the flag into a single event. This involves a combination of attack-defense challenges with Jeopardy. Security will usually categorize the Jeopardy-style challenge. While at the same time, a compromised system will be under attack by the other team. This can be thought of as a chess game where players need to defend regions of the board once it’s been taken.

Mixed CTF is often one of the most advanced but also entertaining forms of CTF, since it’s a highly dynamic process where teams need to leverage advanced knowledge as quickly as possible. It often becomes equally about team management as individual hacking skills. This makes it an in-depth learning experience. 

How Does Someone Become a Certified Hacker?

If all of this sounds intriguing, then you might be wondering how to become a certified hacker. The simple answer is by completing an IT program with an emphasis on cybersecurity and passing the CompTIA certification exams. 

The certification exams cover a wide variety of topics in great depth. In short, it can be a difficult exam. This has the bonus of highlighting your skill after passing the certification exams.

What Are the Benefits of a Formal Education?

IT programs provide several benefits, but one of the most important is that it is taught by an expert on the certification process. Certifications can change at a rapid pace, and this is especially true for IT related certification. The process evolves just as rapidly as technology itself. An IT program can teach the same material covered in the certification exams thanks to highly qualified expert instructors. 

Plus, class environments help you benefit from a broader educational approach. When material is presented, you learn alongside classmates from all walks of life and skill levels. They may be a newcomer or the expert teaching the course. Different perspectives provide different ways of looking at the technology. The result is an educational approach that goes beyond memorization. It instead looks at the underlying problem-solving mechanics. 

Final Thoughts

Are you interested in learning more about the IT program and CompTIA certifications? If you are ready to take the CompTIA certification exam, we recommend preparing with an IT program that has an emphasis in cybersecurity. During the IT program, you will become familiar with the processes and techniques of ethical hacking and maybe compete in a capture the flag competition. Take the time to prepare and build your confidence. You will be happy you did.

Information Technology Degree Program

The Bachelor Degree program in Information Technology with emphasis in Cybersecurity introduces you to a variety of topics, such as assessing the security vulnerability of computer and network systems, various computer and network safeguarding solutions, and managing the implementation and maintenance of security devices, systems, procedures and counter measures.  As a graduate of the program, you will be prepared for an entry-level career as an information support analyst, junior ethical hacker, or network and security support analyst related jobs.

Ready to move from the classroom to a career? Florida Technical College is here to help. Contact us to learn more about completing the information technology degree program at Florida Technical College.