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‘Fun’ Codebreaker Challenge

April 13, 2023

 “Fun” is often the draw for college students and alumni to participate in the National Security Agency’s (NSA) annual Codebreaker Challenge. Still, the event “provides a cohesive story tying together challenges that require a wide range of cybersecurity skills,” said Shane Donahue.

Donahue is a master’s degree student at Dakota State, majoring in Computer Science and Computer Operations. While he enjoys seeing how the Codebreaker scenario develops and leverages its story to create better challenges, “I think its most valuable contribution is to introduce low-level reverse engineering skills to a much larger audience,” he said.

The 2022 Challenge required a mix of reverse engineering, software development, web exploitation, and cryptography skills. There were 4,600 students from 447 academic institutions who participated. About 100 of those students were from Dakota State, placing DSU 7th nationwide. Four solved all the challenges, Donahue, graduate students Logan Stratton, Austen King, and Nathan Ord.

This year's challenge involved trying to help a company after a cyber breach incident, explained Stratton, a doctoral student and Research Engineer II at the Applied Research Lab in Madison.

The competition is “done entirely solo, as a big part of this is to gauge a student’s ability to solve real-world tasks,” he said. For job placement and hiring purposes, many challenges place high importance on individual performance.

The NSA Codebreaker Challenge takes place over four months and “is a great way to hone or grow skills in a semi-low-pressure environment, thanks to being a long-form event,” said Ord. 

King stated some of the challenges were fairly difficult, “but it was rewarding to solve the complex problems and gain some practical experience.”

He added that, “the challenge gave me the opportunity to apply theoretical knowledge gained from my studies at Dakota State to solve challenges modeled after those seen in the real world. It also gave the opportunity to learn new techniques and approaches through trial and error."

Ord said it was a great experience, and “I hope to try my hand again this year when it comes back around.” The 2023 NSA Codebreaker Challenge will be released this August.

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