“I won’t tell you if that’s my real name, but we’ll say my name is Charles. » In front of an audience of around fifty young people in hoodies, the representative of the Directorate General for External Security (DGSE) stands out with his suit and his salt and pepper hair. The serious tone, “Charles” speaks of “parallel war” which is played against France and “the digital strike force” of the DGSE. “We need a lot of talents like you”, he blurts out. His speech echoes: a career in the French secret services is the dream of many of the computer science students gathered at Campus Cyber, a conference center in La Défense (Hauts-de-Seine).
Welcome to 404 CTF, the biggest hacking competition in France – the “404” being a reference to the error message well known to all Internet users and “CTF” being the acronym for Capture the Flag, a must-have competition format for anyone interested in hacking and cybersecurity. The principle of CTFs is simple: participants are looking for “flags” – snippets of code hidden in websites or in secure files. To obtain them, they must perform computer maneuvers which, in other contexts, would be more or less legal.
Co-organized by the DGSE, the Telecom Sud Paris engineering school and a student club from the school, HackademINT, the 404 CTF brought together more than three thousand participants in 2022. Only about fifty of them are present, Thursday, May 25, to attend the presentation of the intelligence service and the unveiling of about twenty new events: most prefer to program from their home.
Twenty days to solve the tests
As soon as Charles’s speech is over, the students pull out their laptops, covered in stickers from other competitions. After a countdown, they all discover at the same time the new challenges that they will have about twenty days to solve. On the menu: hacking of e-mail addresses, attacks against Internet sites, deciphering of secret codes and locating Internet users thanks to photographs published online.
It was the DGSE itself that took the initiative to launch this competition, inaugurated in 2022. For the intelligence service, the interest is to identify young people with talents in cybersecurity or computer hacking, very sought, despite their illegal nature. “According to our estimates, there is a shortage of 15,000 people to be filled in the field of cybersecurity in France”, explains Charles. By 2024, the DGSE seeks to recruit eight hundred people, including one hundred and fifty in the field of cybersecurity alone.
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