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CyLab students hack their way to 3rd place in NSA’s Codebreaker Challenge

posted by Daniel Tkacik
February 15, 2016

Three CyLab students finished in the top 25 individually, placing Carnegie Mellon University’s overall placement at 3rd in the NSA Codebreaker Challenge. Over 2,200 students from over 300 academic institutions participated in this year’s challenge.

“The problems featured in this challenge mimic some of the things that we do every day, in real life, at NSA,” said Rita McCardell Doerr, Associate Directorate for Education and Training for the NSA. “This challenge was NSA’s way to encourage excitement and awareness of some of the problems we face from a cybersecurity perspective at NSA.”

The winning students included:

This year’s Codebreaker Challenge featured a fictitious story – not tied to any actual events – meant for providing a realistic context for the challenge:

“NSA has discovered that the leadership of a terrorist organization is using a new method of communicating secret messages to their operatives in the field. A copy of the program being used by one of the terrorists has been recovered along with an archive of text files that are believed to contain hidden messages. At first glance, the program appears to simply check stock information, but this is likely a ruse to make it appear innocuous. Your mission is to reverse engineer this software and develop capabilities to exploit the secret messaging component.”

Participants in the challenge had to complete four different reverse-engineering tasks, with each increasing in difficulty and building off previous tasks. The challenge ran between September 1st and December 31st, 2015.

Pictured (left to right): Corwin DeBoor, Rita McCardell Doerr, and Robert Xiao

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