Students Extend Streak at Annual NSA Codebreaker Challenge

2020 NSA Codebreaker Challenge winners-GT Computing

Graduate cybersecurity students Xuefeng "William" Wang and Haoran Wang.


Georgia Tech placed second in the 2020 National Security Agency’s Codebreaker Challenge and added to the state of Georgia’s number of ranked teams, eight of which placed in the top 100 for the competition last year.

Georgia Tech was among 452 qualifying institutions and has been in the top three ever since the competition started in 2015. The nationwide challenge provides students with a hands-on opportunity to develop skills in reverse-engineering and low-level code analysis through realistic problem-solving.

“The NSA Codebreaker Challenge is a competitive venue to assure that what we are offering at Georgia Tech is practical, influential, and builds the right skills in our students,” said Taesoo Kim, associate professor in the School of Computer Science.

“All participating students learn what NSA considers important in terms of cybersecurity skill sets and how to apply the practical knowledge that they learn in the classroom,” said Kim, whose Information Security Lab includes the challenge as part of the course.

The competition, often likened to a game of capture the flag, engages students in complex cyber challenges based on real-world scenarios. A sampling from recent years:

  • Disassemble ransomware and break into a cryptocurrency ransom payment implementation to get victims' money back (2018) 

  • Access a secure mobile communications app being used by terrorists to plot an attack (2019) 

  • Hack a FitBit-like fitness tracker's data to locate a kidnapped journalist (2020). This latest challenge also required students to hack into video signals and take down a network of surveillance drones to enable a rescue mission.

The challenge this year was divided into nine tasks over a 16-week period, each task increasing in difficulty.

Xuefeng “William” Wang, a full-time software engineer in Boston and student in the Online Master of Science in Cybersecurity program, solved all but one of the tasks, the last few of which were released in early 2021 while he was starting a new course in his graduate program.

“The NSA challenge covered so many things – encryption, signal processing, working with ARM-based technology, assembly languages, and more,” said Wang. “I easily spent more than 20 hours a week on the tasks.

“The experience in the course and the competition was very rewarding and after I was done, reverse engineering was not a mystery anymore.”

Haoran Wang, who started as a MS in cybersecurity student and recently switched to the Ph.D. in Computer Science program, said the codebreaker challenge did a really good job of putting students in a cybersecurity role where the stakes were high.

“The last task I solved had me tracking a victim with turn-by-turn directions in a city, trying to figure out where the journalist was being taken,” said Wang. “It was fun, but not very easy – I got to do a little bit of forensics and get information on the victim; then when I tracked him, there was a good bit of physics and math, like figuring out acceleration, speed of travel, direction changes and so on,” she said.

“What we learn in courses is sometimes small and basic problems. This really helped me connect my cybersecurity learning to the real world.”

Georgia Tech’s new School of Cybersecurity and Privacy (SCP) developed a visual analysis of top-performing teams based on the leader scoreboard provided by the NSA. University of North Georgia and Georgia Tech took first and second place, respectively, with Mercer University (#14) and Augusta University (#15) rounding out Georgia schools in the top 25.

Georgia Tech’s neighbor to the north, University of North Georgia, has also been consistent in the cybersecurity challenge and is looking to continue raising the field’s profile in the state.

“As National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity, both UNG and Georgia Tech benefit from collaboration with other institutions in Georgia and across the country,” said Bryson Payne, director of the Center for Cyber Operations Education at the University of North Georgia.

“Part of being a CAE is sharing research and training opportunities with peer institutions, and the NSA Codebreaker Challenge is an excellent opportunity to get all 10 CAEs in the University System of Georgia engaged and active in one of the most prestigious competitions in cyber operations.”

SCP Chair Richard DeMillo is currently leading a statewide taskforce to advance a strategy for Georgia’s entire pipeline for cybersecurity and privacy education, including the CAE network.

The NSA’s Academic Engagement office will recognize students from the top three schools in the codebreaker challenge in a virtual celebration March 31.

Contact: 

Joshua Preston, Research Communications Manager
jpreston@cc.gatech.edu