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News | Sept. 12, 2016

Ready, Set, Challenge

It's time once again for NSA's annual Codebreaker Challenge. Through this annual event, NSA offers college undergraduate and graduate students an opportunity to see the kinds of problems NSA faces on a daily basis and then replicate the process NSA uses to devise a solution. Current cyber security students are able to mimic a common problem that NSA addresses regularly and determine if they have what it takes to work at the agency.

This year, the scenario will revolve around finding an improvised explosive device (IED) and having the students figure out how to reverse engineer and then disarm the IED. The 2016 scenario differs from previous challenges in that it provides insight into both offensive and defensive missions of the agency. Previous challenges had focused heavily on only the offensive mission.

Andrew, NSA Codebreaker Challenge project manager, said, "We wanted a scenario that reflects all the work we do to support the military, not just one aspect. Plus, this challenge will capture both our signals intelligence and information assurance missions to give students a full view of the work we do."

The challenge always includes multiple tiers of increasing difficulty and intensity. This year, the NSA Codebreaker Challenge team decided to expand the challenge based on feedback from participants and professors. "Professors told us that they hoped to pique interest of more freshmen level students with little computer experience. So we added a really basic task for those new to computer security. We also noticed that some students completed the most difficult tier in less than 24 hours in 2015, so we decided to create another final tier with increased difficulty for 2016," said Andrew. In addition, they built in more disciplines such as network traffic analysis to broaden the scope of the project.

Throughout the challenge, NSA Security Education Academic Liaisons (SEALs) interact regularly with participants to ensure that they are on the right track. This includes visits to some of the participating colleges and universities to provide guidance on how to solve the problem, discuss the work performed at NSA, and detail employment and internship opportunities at the agency. Last year, NSA SEALs gave on-campus briefings at 15 schools. This year, in an effort to reach a broader audience, NSA will host a virtual technical talk online via Adobe Connect, and allow students to ask questions about the 2015 and 2016 challenges. Students can sign up through the Codebreaker Challenge website.

In 2015, NSA launched a website that allowed students to download the Challenge problem and track progress through a leaderboard, which will be continued into 2016. The leaderboards will show the number of student participants per school and their ranking by tasks solved.

If you think you are up for the challenge, visit to sign up.