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Meet the ASU Hacking Club

'Join in the journey to a perfectly hacked world': ASU Hacking Club's goal is to teach new hackers the basics of the subject


The ASU Hacking Club aims to teach people the basics of hacking. Photo illustration originally published Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021.

A modest, brutalist website lights up the screen, reminiscent of a time when the internet was crafted by hand with simple code. While the word 'hack' is plastered all over the web page, a call to action sits at the bottom:

"To join the fray, get on our Discord. The invite has been embedded in your browser client. Find it."

The ASU Hacking Club has been known by many names. Until most recently, the on-campus group was known as "pwndevils," while those most "leet," or elite, are also inducted into the more exclusive hacking team, "Shellphish." 

Zion Leonahenahe Basque, president of the club and a Ph.D. student studying computer science — and undoubtedly a "leet" hacker — is a proponent for the club's recent rebrand.

"The transition from pwndevils to the Hacking Club was a deliberate attempt to give us a different image to the public," Basque said. "We wanted to completely redesign how people thought about our club on campus. We wanted to become this type of iconic, semi-exclusive, enigmatic hacking club."

Basque, a Hawaii native, Laboratory of Security Engineering for Future Computing researcher and hardened Shellphish veteran, wants to be clear, however, that you don't have to be an expert to join the club.

"I joined this club when I was a freshman at ASU. I had never done security stuff before," Basque said. "Hacking is not about being the smartest person in the room, it's about perseverance, curiosity and the love for knowledge. The Hacking Club looks for members who share those traits."

The club's new manifesto outlines its goal to recruit novice hackers to "join in the journey to a perfectly hacked world" of '90s style hacking, which teaches people the basics of hacking, Basque said, to compete in virtual capture the flag competitions.

These challenges start with a given output, but the output requires an input function in order to be deciphered. "That flag is your input, and you need to try to reverse engineer the program, understand what it does, and that's how you get the flag," said Justin Kereszturi, vice president of the club and freshman studying computer science.

Kereszturi, only 18 and a self-taught hacker, has a few capture the flag events under his belt. As a sophomore in high school, he joined pwndevils and competed with Shellphish at the Capture the Flag event DEF CON, the "Olympics of hacking," said Basque.

"All the teams in the world, they try to train for that. That gives you a lot of clout, I guess, and a lot of recognition. If you can win DEF CON, that's huge," Kereszturi said. "That basically tells everybody 'Hey, we're some serious hackers, you know, we won this Olympics of CTFs.'"

Shellphish, comprised of the top hackers in the ASU Hacking Club, as well as students and alumni from across the world, placed 10th in DEF CON qualifiers this year and 14th in the finals.

"I was a virtual member, but even then it was one of those things where you're just like, 'Wow'. You really get a concept for how smart people are about hacking," said Zach Szczesniak, secretary of the club and a graduate student studying computer science with an emphasis in cyber security.

Szczesniak did not pursue computer science during his time as an undergraduate. Instead, he brings a new perspective to the club, holding a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering.

It was the reputation pwndevils and Shellphish had within the hacking community which helped Szczesniak decide to go to ASU for his graduate studies.

"I strongly believe that student societies are the best way to learn curriculum. You can spend all day in textbooks ... and get the A-pluses in your classes, but it's a totally different mindset" to do it outside of class and compete using that knowledge, he said.

Ike Rolader, the treasurer of the club and sophomore studying computer science, shares the same novelty of hacking as Szczesniak and many other recruits getting started.

"When you're first starting out you probably will feel like it's overwhelming, you don't understand it at all; you probably will feel that way for a while," Rolader said. "I need to keep reminding myself, a lot of these other people are Ph.D. students, I'm a sophomore. There's kind of a big gap of knowledge there."

The ASU Hacking Club is accepting interested students on a rolling basis, but every recruit needs to hack into the discord and pass a hacking challenge before becoming a certified member.

Even so, the overall goal of the ASU Hacking Club is not to exclude, but to challenge those new to hacking and pique the interest of those outside the world of cybersecurity, said Basque.

"We want you to come here and feel comfortable asking questions and getting answers you need so that you can learn faster. You can always learn everything on your own but you have brilliant people here to tell you what to do," Szczesniak said.

As for the future of the ASU Hacking Club, the group expressed excitement for hosting their own capture the flag events for ASU and high school students who want to get ahead of the curve, as well as training to crush next year's DEF CON.

And, of course, following the '90s theme, maybe hacking a car phone or retro web browser will pop up on their to-do list, Basque said, as well as getting to say "hack{m0m_w3_h4cked_th3_n3w5}" in The State Press.

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