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University of North Georgia Recognized for Crushing Codebreaker Success

By Betsy Stein, NSA Communications

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Desmond Henderson, a senior cyber security major at the University of North Georgia (UNG), thought the National Security Agency’s Codebreaker Challenge (CBC) would be just like many of the other Capture the Flag hacking events he’d participated in over the years, but he was wrong.

“One thing stood out to me, there was no such thing as patterns. It’s not simple. … I loved that,” Henderson said in a recent virtual ceremony recognizing UNG for its first-place finish in the 2019 CBC. “It opened my eyes to my lack of knowledge and stimulated a lot of internal crying and pulling my hair out.”

Henderson, who is also a leader in UNG’s Cyber Special Unit and ROTC Corps of Cadets, was one of 30 students from UNG to complete the seventh and final level of the CBC. Only 50 students nationwide completed the challenge, which is just 1 percent of the 3,800 some students who started it last fall.

 “I am amazed by what you all have done. Not only have you excelled and exceeded and reached the top, but you have crushed the competition,” said NSA Deputy Director George Barnes at the virtual ceremony. “We take on the toughest challenges and we do that for our nation, and the good thing about this competition is, it’s hopefully piqued the interest of students to think about doing this for a profession. … We have challenges you couldn’t even imagine.”

The annual Codebreaker Challenge offers students a closer look at the type of work done at NSA and provides an opportunity to develop skills needed to achieve the Agency’s national security mission including software reverse engineering, cryptanalysis, exploit development, and more. The 2019 challenge dealt with a mobile secure messaging app with a scenario that involved tech savvy terrorists using it to communicate. Students had to develop capabilities to enable message spoofing, user masquerades, and message decryption to thwart the terrorists and foil an attack.

 “This is really hard,” said Mike Annichiarico, a member of the team that creates the challenge. “We decided to make it difficult on purpose in the hopes that 1 to 2 percent of all players are able to solve it. The fact that a single university had this many solvers is really amazing.”

At UNG 184 students started the challenge and 66 made it to level six. Georgia Institute of Technology came in second with 114 students entering the challenge and two completing it. Oregon State University – last year’s winner – came in third with 94 students entering and one completing it.

UNG President Dr. Bonita Jacobs said she was happy to be able to recognize the students last week and the “magnificent” job they had done.

 “These students have been incredible,” she said. “These students you will hear about in the future. They are going to be cyber experts.”

UNG students who completed level seven received special Codebreaker Challenge Medallions. Those who completed the second highest level received certificates signed by the Director of NSA.

Dr. Bryson Payne, Director for Cyber Operations Education at UNG, lauded NSA for the partnerships that have enabled the university to build such a nationally competitive team. From GenCyber camps sponsored by NSA to the support provided as a National Center for Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense – NSA has been a lifeline to UNG, he said.  The Agency, in turn, has seen a return on the investment with the number of interns from UNG increasing each year and most continuing to work at the Agency.

“It’s a terrific program. The internships really connect the students to NSA,” Dr. Payne said. “They speak so highly of their experience that others want to get jobs there too.”

Several NSA employees spoke about the many opportunities at the Agency including development programs that allow for trying different areas of expertise and the chance to travel and work outside of the United States. A new NSA employee stressed to the students that their achievement on the CBC proved they are ready to work at NSA.

After the ceremony, students stayed on to ask the Codebreaker team questions ranging from getting a job at NSA to ways to increase their skills. Everyone wanted to know about the 2020 Codebreaker Challenge set to kick off in mid-September, but the team was not ready to divulge any details.

“I personally can’t wait for this year’s (challenge) to come around so we can strive to repeat our victory,” said Daniel Haugen, a UNG 2019 CBC solver. “There is no better way to apply what we are learning.”