Train Bridge at Swarthmore College crossing Crum Creek

ISTS 2016 Blue Team 4 Postmortem

This past weekend I participated in a hacking competition Information Security Talent Search at RIT as a defending team. The goal was to attack other teams machines while keeping yours online. While this is going on there are bonuses or injects being handed out that gets you bonus points for completing various challenges. An example of an inject was to run and connect to a minecraft server on some other teams servers.

Unfortunately we didn't win but our team did win the title of best defense which I hold as high as winning. My team knew going in that our hacking and offensive skills were lacking compared to the other teams but we gave it our all.

Our Strategy


This turned out to be the winning strategy in the long run in terms of keeping us running. If we saw something that seemed out of place or was not needed we tar’ed it up and plopped it in /root for safe keeping. All services were stripped to their bare essentials and left in what I would call a barely working state but was just enough to fulfill the score board checks. This included disabling ssh and sudo which removed most of the attack vectors on the machines. Dirty but REALLY effective.


Many of the attacks or Injects involved opening processes on ports and running commands through them. The direct counter to this of course is to lock the whole system down to only the ports it needs. It's impossible to open a million netcat processes on every port if binding is blocked. The email server only needed pop3 and smtp so everything was blocked except for port 25 and 110.

Condense and Minimize

Stick to what you need in the long run. We did not have the control we liked on our cloud infrastructure so we moved as much as we could to our local ESXI server. Our build server ran a alpine Linux instance with ssh and our AD server was just DNS. The scoring engine only cared that they were available, not that they were usable. We actually had people on red and white team complain to us at how difficult it was to get at these boxes and that feels like a victory to me.

Commands that Helped

Files and Configs to Watch

There were quiet a few files that had absolutely no reason to be changing through the competition so we either made them non-writeable to watched them like a hawk.

Pitfalls to Avoid

Our HTTP server had to host a buggy and security nightmare php app which also ran our banking terminal. For the first half of the competition I just hosted the default apache page which was enough to score. The problem arose when we actually had to use the banking app to pay our power bill to keep our servers running. The red team had XSS'ed it through a specially crafted tweet that would drain your balance every time you access the page. I mistakenly ignored large aspects of the banking aspects of the game as well as the app. I should have gone through it at the beginning and removed the XSS vectors.

What We Loved

I thought the infrastructure of the competition was well put together. Rarely were there any obvious lag or hiccups with with the VM's or networking. The only issues we had with hardware was when our VM server had a hard drive failure which was hardly the fault of anyone running the competition.

What We Want Changed Next Year

As I mentioned the game had a concept of money which was awarded by completing challenges. My issues come from what it can be spent on, specifically three of them. Restore a system to it's original snapshot, Power Off and Console Access. All of our VM's were shutdown with zero way for us to turn it back on for about an hour. We had ALL of our VM's reset THREE times. FINALLY, a team payed to have console access to our VM's where they turned them off and booted into single user mode.

There was no way to block this, no way to defend against this and once it's been paid for no one to mitigate. Three times I had to rebuild our VM's as if we were at the beginning of the competition all while every team destroyed our VM's with the known vulnerabilities. By the time we got half of the VM's in a safe state the other half are owned beyond repair and had to be reset. We ended up draining our entire bank account just getting machines turned back on or reset to remove the forced backdoors. This is precisely why we moved all of our services we could to the local ESXI cluster as we couldn't trust the cloud infrastructure. Due to routing issues we were only able to put half of the VM's we needed to host behind the local ESXI and we continue to fight off resets and bought backdoors for the entire competition. Frustrating for us and embarrassing for the other teams that had to buy their through our servers defenses.