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News | Sept. 16, 2015

Are You Up to the Challenge? NSA Issues the 2015 Codebreaker Challenge for College Students

The joke is that undergraduates think they know everything and graduate students believe they know even more. For its part, NSA wants them and everyone else to better understand the agency's mission to defend and protect the nation. Witness the annual Codebreaker Challenge.

The challenge started when NSA's Signals Intelligence Directorate sought ways to attract top talent from the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines to a career in national security. They hoped to develop long-term relationships with academia through a variety of engaging activities.

The effort began a couple of years ago with the Senior Class Project. NSA provided to university professors semester-long coursework for students to solve a problem with a scenario similar to that of an existing NSA problem.

"Our goal is to form relationships with potential recruits from the country's finest universities," said Ross, an NSA security education academic liaison. "The Senior Class Project gives NSA a better assessment of the capabilities of students, to identify who would be a great fit for the agency," he said.

Because the Senior Class Project focuses on small classes to develop a proposed solution, NSA created the Codebreaker Challenge three years ago as a way to reach a broader number of students.

"Internally, we work closely on a technical level before even going to the campus. We will give a technical talk at the school on a cutting edge topic as an introduction to the students," said Eric, a cryptographic technologist. "We then create a problem based on a recent issue that NSA faced."

The NSA experts build a story around whatever problem is presented, such as breaking into a terrorist organization's communications network or protecting a computer system from a hack.

The challenge consists of multiple tiers that become progressively harder. Last year, only 10 students solved the fourth and final tier problem.

"It is fun to create. Creating a good problem is a good challenge within itself," said Eric.

The small team of NSA volunteers visits the colleges, provides guidance to students working on the challenge, and evaluates the submissions.

"This challenge offers exposure to other kinds of problems. Plus, it stretches my reverse engineering skills," said Julie, an NSA technical director. "If I can understand how to structure the problem, I can solve the problem myself," she added.

The program grows and improves every year. This year NSA created a website for students to download the problem and track progress. It even includes a leaderboard which offers the schools bragging rights. Each participant who downloads the problem receives a unique identifier with slight modifications to the problem to provide each participant a custom experience.

"It takes an interesting mindset to develop the problems and it is so rewarding when students get something out of the challenge," said Andrew, the website's developer.

Two weeks in, more than 1,000 participants from 130 schools are participating in the new online version of the challenge. Only three years ago, when the inaugural challenge was issued, the program reached only 13 schools. There are still more than 100 days to go. So there is still time to join for those up to the challenge: