Before I tell you about the journey, let me introduce myself a bit better. My name is Leila “leila” Arstila (I will get back to this rather original nickname later) and I’m a 24-year-old computer science student at Aalto University.
Right after high school, I studied chemical and biochemical engineering, but quite soon, I realized that it was not the right fit for me. With some luck, hard work, and the right kind of friends, I got introduced to cybersecurity through puzzle-like Capture The Flag games. Having my plans for the future wide open, I decided to take the leap into the unknown and applied for my current program in computer science. And by hard work I mean it: I did not get in on the first try, but after a year of studying independently and getting relevant work experience, I got the spot.
I’ve always thrived to make the world a better place, and now I have a wide toolset to do it through my studies. I guess I don’t have to explain the threats and problems our digital world exposes us to, and being able to use my skills and knowledge to protect the world from them really motivates and inspires me. Studying and working in cybersecurity requires a creative mindset and problem-solving skills more than anything else, and I hope I’d have realized that sooner.
European Cyber Security Challenge 2022
So, now let's get into my trip to the European Cyber Security Challenge (ECSC), held in Vienna in September 2022. The event was a Capture-the-Flag (CTF) -type of competition, where European teams of 10 people under the age of 25 rival each other “in solving security-related tasks from domains such as web security, mobile security, crypto puzzles, reverse engineering and forensics and in the process collect points for solving them.” If you’re not familiar with the concept of CTF competitions, think of them as escape rooms, but with computers.
Leila representing SSH at the European Cyber Security Challenge (ECSC) in Vienna.
ECSC22_day1_(c)_David_Bohmann_136_web.jpg © David Bohmann
This year, Finland was participating for the first time in the ECSC. Our team was selected in May 2022 through a CTF competition The Generation Z Challenge, challenge.fi.
In the world of the internet, one usually has to be creative in coming up with a username for a service, but belonging to a minority has its advantages: there happens to exist not too many Leilas out there doing cybersecurity in Finland nor globally, so I was able to use my first name as my username in the challenge.fi. It is always a great satisfaction to have a short and simple username! Thus, I am known in the formal context as Leila “leila” Arstila (for clarification to others familiar only with my internet alias).
The Finnish team, myself included, comprises top young talents from all over Finland. During the summer, we trained for the actual competition a couple of times together, got to know each other, and learned how we performed as a team at our best.
ENISA Bootcamp for women in cybersecurity
In addition to the ECSC event itself, The European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA) held a bootcamp for women participating in the challenge the weekend before.
The two-day boot camp consisted of training together, networking, and learning new tricks and tips for the challenge. For me, the weekend was a magical experience, meeting same-minded people from all over Europe who were just like me. I consider having that kind of wholesome, heartwarming community crucial in a field this homogenous. In ECSC2022, less than a tenth of the competitors were women. I am really happy to see companies and organizations come up and try to tackle the bias.
Leila together with others represented all women in the cybersecurity field.
ECSC22_day4_(c)_David_Bohmann_143_print.jpg © David Bohmann
Fun fact: there is 1750 km between Helsinki and Vienna. I sat through all of those, taking my time to travel to Vienna and back by land (and on a boat between Helsinki and Tallinn). Environmental issues and sustainability have always had a big influence on me, and I wanted to try to get to Vienna as low-carbon as I could. I am so happy SSH was willing to sponsor my journey there, because unfortunately, the climate-friendly way is still more expensive than flying.
Team Finland ended up 12th at the ECSC 2022
The competition itself was arranged in two parts: jeopardy CTF, and an attack and defense competition. Our team did very well on both days, and I especially enjoyed learning many new things and tricks along the way. Our team was even able to catch a couple of “first bloods”, being the first to solve a particular challenge.
Team Finland ended up being the 12th out of 32 teams. I am very proud of us, as participating for the first time brought some challenges that I hope will be overcome in the upcoming years. I know with this year's experience team Finland will perform even stronger next year in ECSC 2023 held in Norway, and I truly hope I will be part of it again!
Big thank you to SSH for supporting my journey and for the practical sparring and tips from SSH experts!