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Stratton completes NSA Codebreaker Challenge for 4th time

May 3, 2024

Dakota State University placed 5th nationwide in the National Security Agency’s (NSA) annual 2023 Codebreaker Challenge.

The NSA Codebreaker Challenge offers participants an opportunity to work on a fictional but realistic problem set, centered around the NSA’s mission. These sets can be solved through low-level code analysis and reverse engineering. The competition is open to anyone with an email address from a recognized U.S. school or university.  

There were 450 schools and over 5,000 students who participated in the 2023 challenge, which required students to solve a series of nine tasks using skills such as reverse engineering, programming, cryptography, forensics, and exploitation development. It’s an opportunity to learn more about topics they may not be familiar with, and to practice their skills.

“This year, in particular, dove a bit more into the cryptography and reverse engineering section compared to last year,” said Dr. Logan Stratton, DSU alumni and Research Engineer II at the Applied Research Lab in Madison. “It also threw in a bit of emulation and database knowledge for competitors to complete.”

Stratton first began doing codebreaker challenges in 2017.  “After participating in the challenge, I found out how difficult and well-built it is … and decided to pursue it regularly,” he said. This year is the fourth year he successfully completed all tasks in the challenge.

The challenge differs from many other cyber competitions which are typically completed during a weekend. Codebreaker participants had from Sept. 28, 2023, to Jan. 11, 2024, to complete all nine tasks.

“The mentality for longer challenges is different in that you are more likely to go down wrong paths and be stuck for days or sometimes weeks on end,” Stratton explained. “Being able to persevere even when you think you have explored every possibility is the only way to succeed at this type of challenge.”

While Stratton encountered difficulties during certain parts of the challenge, he appreciates the opportunity to learn how to handle such situations.

“Being able to learn how to handle not only the scenario, but also yourself in semi-time-sensitive, complex challenges is an important aspect to learn,” he said.

Stratton was the only one associated with Dakota State to solve this year’s challenge. However, he hopes to have more finishes by DSU-affiliated competitors next year.

“Having more participate from our university only helps display that we have good programs at DSU and can continue to grow in the future,” he added.

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