The Codebreaker Challenge 2019: Here's How NSA Looking For Employees Among US Students

2 years ago



As reported by the Federal News Network, the National Security Agency is looking for their cybersecurity experts among college students. NSA's Codebreaker Challenge is daring some 2,600 students from over 300 schools to solve it. The Typical Student team learned the details. 

Can The Codebreaker Challenge Help Your Career?

According to Kathy Hutson, the senior strategist for industry and academic engagement at the NSA, the agency aims to attract the next-gen talents to get employed by the federal government. Hutson commented on the initiative as follows: “Through the Codebreaker Challenges, we are using a non-traditional approach, which also teaches good fundamental skills for NSA as well as the nation.”

Partaking in activities like these can help in getting employed by the NSA. Ms. Hutson said: ”At a recent orientation class, one woman identified that she came to NSA through the GenCyber camps, which NSA hosts, and what sealed the deal for her was participating in the Codebreaker Challenge.”


How Can Students Participate In The Codebreaker Challenge?




The Codebreaker Challenge was launched by the NSA in 2013 to get connected with educators and students focused on technology and cyber issues. Six years later, the initiative has become a much-anticipated challenge "with professors making it a part of their classes and students testing their mettle against NSA’s cyber experts." 

Last year, the challenge focused on ransomware and blockchain. The participants were required to solve eight separate, but related challenges. Eric Bryant, a technical director in the cryptoanalysis organization at the NSA, unveils more about the structure of the challenge: 

“We structure the challenge so that the beginning tasks are easier and more accessible to the students. Most students don’t have prior experience in areas like reverse engineering, vulnerability analysis, and cryptoanalysis..“

“We structure the problem so there is a progression of tasks and they are working toward an ultimate goal. In the case of the most recent challenge, ultimately they were trying to unlock the ransomware without having to pay the ransom and go a step further to recover all the funds victims had paid in and pay them back by exploiting the logic in the attacker’s contract.”

As for the 2019 Codebreaker Challenge, it's going to focus on mobile security threats, most likely using an Android operating system.


How Difficult Is The Challenge?



Adam Merrill, a computer science student at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology who took part in the 2018 Codebreaker Challenge, shared his experience. Adam claims the participation in the challenge "gave him the confidence to make cybersecurity a main focus area of his major."

According to Merrill, the preparation process took him about 80 hours over three or four months. One-third to one-half of that time roughly was spent researching online to understand how things like blockchain or distributed ledger work. Here's how he described problem-solving: 

“Going into this, I had no intentions of finishing this. My initial goal was just get to task three or four, but after I finished tasks three and four and I got to the blockchain part, I took a  break and then one day I had some free time and looked into it,” he said. “I was able to get enough information and figured it was feasible. I spent a lot of time on task six. I came up with what I thought was a reasonable approach to solve that part of the challenge, but I realized it didn’t solve the task. That bummed me out. But later when I was sharing that approach with a friend, it turned out I was missing some small detail and once I added that in, it gave me a boost to finish.”

Eventually, the Codebreaker Challenge success resulted in Adam Merrill applying for and being accepted into the Cybersecurity Scholarship for Service program. Under the program, he would be provided with up to three years of scholarships in exchange for working for the government after he's graduated from school.


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