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Georgia Tech and University of North Georgia Run Away with National Cybersecurity Competition

With a combined score of over 250,000, Georgia Institute of Technology and University of North Georgia (UNG) stood tallest among the 448 colleges and universities competing in the National Security Agency (NSA) Codebreaker Challenge by placing first and second.

The 2023 Codebreaker Challenge is Georgia Tech's third consecutive year winning the competition. The Institute placed second to UNG in 2019 and 2020. UNG took second place in 2021 and third place in 2018. 

The annual student competition highlights the country’s most robust cybersecurity programs and includes several nationally ranked computing programs. Georgia Tech tallied more than 175,000 points, while UNG scored more than 90,000. The 2023 challenge marks the fifth year in a row Georgia Tech or UNG placed at the top of the leaderboard despite NSA engineers making sure each year is more complex than the last.

"The Codebreaker Challenge is an annual outreach for the NSA," NSA Lead Developer Akil Booker said during a talk at Georgia Tech last year. "We try to follow a realistic storyline. We look at current events and see what would make a good story."

In this year’s scenario, the U.S. Coast Guard detects a mysterious signal. Participants were tasked with tracing the signal to its source, a rogue server collecting data, and stopping it.

The competition is open to anyone with a valid university email address. However, only student scores are compiled on the leaderboard. Even though students compete independently, two University System of Georgia (USG) faculty use their time in the classroom to prepare their students for the competition.

In Atlanta, Professor Taesoo Kim incorporates the challenge as a part of his CS 6265 Information Security Lab in Georgia Tech’s School of Cybersecurity and Privacy. Every year, Kim strives to give students insight into the work security professionals do at the NSA and was thrilled to see their hard work rewarded once again.

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In order from left to right, Georgia Tech students Vipul Ujawane, Vaibhav Nagar, Gayathri Rajakumar, and Daniel Chou share their advice for future competitors. The four were a part of Georgia Tech students codebreaker finishers in last year's competition. (Photo by Kevin Beasley/College of Computing)   


"This achievement not only highlights Georgia Tech's preeminence in diverse areas of cybersecurity, including reverse engineering, cryptography, and vulnerability-finding but also in the critical domain of bug exploitation," Kim said. "This consistent success is a testament to our dedication to exceptional technical education and our significant role in propelling advancements within the field."

These skills helped Darin Mao, a second-year computer science (CS) undergraduate, complete the Codebreaker Challenge in a little over a week. While the skills learned in CS 6265 translated well to the competition, Mao says the most difficult task was reverse engineering. The fictional embedded device created by the NSA ran on an architecture he needed to be more familiar with and involved multiple programs interacting with each other.

“I spent a lot of time understanding what the programs were doing,” he said. “Since Codebreaker is such a long event, I'd recommend taking breaks often and not worrying too much about speed. Sometimes, if you look at one thing too long, it can be hard to develop new ideas.”

A few hours north in Dahlonega, Bryson Payne, CS professor and coordinator of student cybersecurity programs, supports UNG students like Scott Snow, a cybersecurity major with a CS minor, in the NSA competition. Snow was one of his university's top performers in this year’s Codebreaker Challenge and hopes to apply his codebreaking skills working with a government agency after graduation.

"It gives me a major sense of confidence knowing that great individuals have prepared me," Snow said. "I have full faith and confidence that UNG has set me on the road to success through the cybersecurity program." 

In addition to academic coursework, UNG cybersecurity students benefit from professional development, conference opportunities, and competition support from the university's Institute for Cyber Operations, which is the U.S. Department of Defense funds.

"Our students consistently show themselves to be among the best in the country in cybersecurity competitions like the NSA Codebreaker Challenge,” Payne said. "The combination of classroom learning and hands-on experiences we provide at UNG prepares these students to face today's toughest cyber challenges." 

The NSA and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have designated Georgia Tech as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Research (CAE-R) and UNG as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense (CAE-CD). They are two of 14 Georgia-based institutions with designations from the NSA and DHS.

Clark Leonard, director of news and communications for the University of North Georgia, contributed to this report. 

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The University of North Georgia placed second in the NSA Codebreaker Challenge. Above are a few of the participants from this year's competition. Photo courtesy of UNG  
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SCP Founding Chair Michael Bailey stands with over a dozen students who competed in the 2022 NSA Codebreaker Challenge(Photo by Kevin Beasley/College of Computing)