Cyber Hawks team cracks NSA codebreaker challenge

  • The Cyber Hawks worked their way to top honors in the NSA Codebreaker challenge. (Pictured) North Georgia alum Jacob Elliott helped coach the team on the way to victory.
    The Cyber Hawks worked their way to top honors in the NSA Codebreaker challenge. (Pictured) North Georgia alum Jacob Elliott helped coach the team on the way to victory.

As computer scientists representing 532 universities across the United States competed to crack the latest NSA Codebreaker challenge, UNG proved to be a consistent force in the world of cyber security by winning the competition outright after finishing third last year.
The competition challenges anyone with a school email from a U.S. university to try and solve a realistic problem set generated by the National Security Agency using reverse engineering and code analysis.
“The NSA Codebreaker Challenge is the toughest college-level cyber operations competition in the country,” Dr. Bryson Payne, professor of computer science at UNG, said. “Every year they produce a different real-world scenario to both train and test students in universities across the nation.”
“They create a challenge that's designed to specifically target something they're lacking or threats that they're currently facing from people,” Jacob Elliott, a former UNG Computer Science student and current member of the school’s Information Technology staff, said.
“This year the challenge was kind of dealing with a fictional terrorist organization that had created an Android application that they were using to communicate and it uses what is called end-to-end encryption so that the two people who have phones can read their messages but no one in between will be able to intercept it and figure out what they're doing.”
Elliott, who now helps create software for the university, was the first of 30 participants representing UNG to complete all seven stages of the competition and the third quickest in the nation. The challenge as a whole only saw 50 competitors solve all tasks, with no other school having more than three participants to solve the entire problem set.
“Part of that is due to the way that we worked as a team, a lot of the other schools, like people say it's surprising that we would beat a bigger school like Georgia Tech,” Elliott said, “but the problem with being a bigger school is that they're more spread out and you have teachers that are offering challenges for extra credit and they'll go off and do that for extra credit but not be working together, whereas in our case, we have a group chat with hundreds of people that we're constantly in communication and the tools that we were developing to crack these challenges.”
After completing the challenge with three months to spare, Elliott led the charge to help other UNG participants finish the challenge, resulting in a record-breaking score by the school.
“I beat task seven on October 9th and then I had 100 days left of the challenge and I didn't say I'm going to sit back and just watch other people struggle,” he said. “I said ‘I'm going to develop tools to say here, you can take this and do it yourself too’ and so we all really definitely got together and helped each other and that was what propelled us to the big win.”
Payne found the unity of the team to be very encouraging.
“The teamwork was really inspiring to watch,” he said. “Students would answer questions at 2 and 3 a.m., helping each other find their way through the complex challenges. Every competitor received a different set of files, a different mobile application to reverse engineer, a different group of terrorists planning a different attack -so students could help each other with the overall process but every student had to do their own work to submit the correct answers for their version of the challenge.”
With 289 participants and a final score of 230,450, UNG set multiple records with its performance.
“We definitely had the highest score easily, but then also...I believe no one in a previous challenge had scored more than about 50,000 points, so for us to reach over 200,000 was a huge milestone for the program,” Elliott said. “And also to have 287 people from an individual school sign up was more than they had ever seen before too.”
UNG added cybersecurity as a bachelor's degree earning major in 2018 and have already made huge strides toward becoming a recognizable and reputable name in the field. And winning national competitions in cybersecurity can only help.
“In 2018, we taught our first Reverse Engineering course, and the students placed No. 3 in the nation,” Payne said. “It was great to see the students gain the confidence to know they could compete with the best cyber operations programs in the US. To win the top spot out of 532 schools this year was an outstanding effort, with 184 UNG students and graduates completing at least one challenge.”
“Cybersecurity is a growing field and now that we have the bachelors in cybersecurity at North Georgia, there's going to be people who are making decisions to say ‘what's a reputable school that I can go to for this field?’ and seeing that, especially if we extend this into winning next year and the year after, people start to stand up and say we have a serious program here that I'm going to try to get into the school and go there or you have parents who are saying you know what's a good school, if you're interested in that, go to North Georgia.”
And having a reputation as one of the best cybersecurity programs in the nation obviously doesn’t just bene t the school, but the students in the program as well.
“Any kind of competitions obviously look great for us to do, but just in the last semester while we've been completing this challenge, we've been having our weekly [club] meetings every Wednesday and we've had FBI, NSA, Army Cyber, private companies, like they're all sending representatives to come and speak to our meetings and so they're really getting a lot of face-to-face interaction and also donations of money that are coming from these companies.”
Elliott mentioned several companies had donated money to go toward the university’s cyber security program and the school’s cybersecurity club, Cyber Hawks.
“There's a lot of support that comes from the school and outside companies that comes from being a reputable program that completes things like this.”
And with UNG’s reputation for cybersecurity already growing, the sky seems to be the limit for the young program.
“You win a challenge like this or some other big national challenge and then that allows you to bring in better talent and the more gifted students in cyber are going to come to UNG and then when we win more and more and continue to just build a legacy on that,” Elliott said.
“This is the third competition we've ranked nationally in, and I just see the students teaming up even more and continuing to compete with the best cyber programs in the country,” Payne said. “With over 1,000 students in computer science, information systems and cyber, UNG is here to stay, and I can't wait to see what our students will accomplish next.”