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Press Release | March 18, 2024

Georgia Tech Wins NSA's Codebreaker Challenge for Third Consecutive Year

FORT MEADE, Md. – For the third consecutive year, the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) took first place in the National Security Agency (NSA) sponsored Codebreaker Challenge (CBC).

The CBC is designed to develop and test students’ skills in reverse engineering, computer programming, forensics, and vulnerability analysis with increasingly difficult mission-oriented scenarios that mirror some of the technical and analytic challenges specific to NSA.

This year’s CBC involved a signal with an unknown origin identified by the U.S. Coast Guard and presented the students with a series of nine tasks to locate and analyze what produced the signal, discover an active collection operation tasked by a rogue server, and subvert the rogue server to stop the collection device.

Each task in the challenge was weighted with a certain number of points and increased in difficulty as students advanced through the tasks. Once the challenge was completed, the points were awarded to the student’s school.

Holly Mayne, NSA’s CBC academic lead, noted that Georgia Tech had the largest student participation in the challenge, with 223 students completing the first task, and the most points awarded across all nine tasks.

“They are so excited to bring home another CBC trophy, their fourth win since 2013,” Mayne said about Georgia Tech’s win. “They are looking forward to the official NSA celebration on campus in the coming months.”

One student from the University of California, Santa Cruz, broke a CBC record this year, completing all nine tasks of the challenge in just five days — cutting the former record in half, according to CBC lead developer Akil Booker.

The University of North Georgia placed second in the challenge, and SANS Technology Institute finished third. Other top schools included the University of California, Santa Cruz; Dakota State University; and Strayer University. Students who completed the challenge will receive a special CBC medallion and certificate signed by Gen. Timothy Haugh, Director, National Security Agency.

Ten years ago, a group of NSA employees launched the CBC with five participating schools, growing with each successive iteration. This year’s challenge had 5,057 participants registered from 450 U.S.-based academic institutions, according to Mayne.

“For the past 10 years, the CBC has given students from all around the country a glimpse into real-world scenarios that emulate the Intelligence Community’s classified work environment,” she said.

Over time, the CBC has helped promote intercampus engagement, as well as the Agency’s engagement with the academic community, strengthen U.S. cyber-related education nationwide, and increase student interest in pursuing a career at NSA.

Eric Bryant, one of the original creators of the CBC, said that while the challenge originally started out as a fun puzzle, it continues to be a positive return on investment for the Agency.

“It is an excellent way to gauge and sharpen students’ proficiency and skills in cybersecurity and reverse engineering before they come to work here,” he said.

Students who perform well in the CBC are encouraged to apply to the Agency, with many receiving conditional job offers. Owen Parkins, one of the few student solvers from the 2018 CBC and current researcher at NSA, noted how his participation and completion of this challenge piqued the Agency’s interest in hiring him to work for NSA.

“I love my job and love coming to work every day,” Parkins said. “I really wanted what NSA had. I wanted to [get after the adversary] and do things that you can’t do anywhere else. And that has been fulfilled beyond my imagination.”

Since 2013, students like Parkins have grown to learn more about NSA and have a better understanding of its national security concerns and priorities through their participation in the CBC, Mayne said.

“CBC helps prepare and attract the next generation of cyber talent here at the Agency,” she said.

NSA Media Relations