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UNG wins NSA Codebreaker Challenge 'in commanding fashion'

January 13, 2020

The University of North Georgia (UNG) scored a decisive victory in the 2019 National Security Agency (NSA) Codebreaker Challenge, which ran for 110 days and finished Jan. 10.

UNG students, faculty and staff tallied 230,450 points, more than four times as much as second-place Georgia Tech's 56,050. Third-place Oregon State University was the only other school to top 40,000 points. A total of 531 universities and colleges competed.

"I'm proud to be the coach of the No. 1 cyber operations university team in America," said Dr. Bryson Payne, director of UNG's Center for Cyber Operations Education and professor of computer science. "These young men and women have worked harder over the past 110 days than any other team in the country."

UNG had 184 of its participants complete at least one of the seven tasks, one of which consisted of two parts. Thirty UNG participants finished all seven tasks.

The NSA Codebreaker Challenge presented tasks expected of a junior- to mid-level field analyst with the NSA. Competitors had to call on their skills in cryptography, database analysis, network analysis, reverse engineering, and forensics to infiltrate a simulated terrorist network mobile application and prevent a terrorist attack.

Payne said the competition opened doors for student internships in top cybersecurity firms. Dr. Ash Mady, department head of Computer Science & Information Systems, said events like the NSA Codebreaker Challenge help set up UNG students for career opportunities during school and upon graduation.

"They're not talking about secondhand experience or something a professor told them or a paragraph they read in a book," Mady said. "They're talking about things they did themselves."

Maria Marquez, a senior from Gainesville, Georgia, pursuing a cybersecurity degree, appreciated that element of the event. She completed all seven tasks.

"Every task had something new for me to learn," Marquez said. "I used tools that I hadn't used before, and I learned new concepts and vocabulary."

Jacob Elliott, a UNG alumnus and software developer in Information Technology Services at UNG, was the third person in the country to complete all seven tasks. The Cleveland, Georgia, native completed the challenge first for UNG and then for the second-place team, Georgia Tech, where he graduated with a master's degree in computer science on Dec. 14. Mimicking real-world operations, he mentored and shared tips and code with his UNG teammates that would help them solve the tasks. Teamwork was allowed and encouraged as part of the competition, and even with the help, solving the tasks required as much as 100 hours of work per student across the 15-week competition.

"It's a chance to make a name for ourselves by winning in commanding fashion," Elliott said. "We have something special here with the cyber program."

Daniel Haugen, a senior from Canton, Georgia, pursuing degrees in computer science and cybersecurity, is the incoming president of UNG's CyberHawks student club. He completed all seven tasks.

"The NSA Codebreaker Challenge provided the opportunity to learn technical skills like network traffic analysis, SQL injections, cryptography, and reverse engineering," he said. "Additionally, we were able to develop soft skills through collaboration and being able to explain complex concepts in ways that others can understand and develop their own skills."

The successes of this competition and related activities sponsored by the Center for Cyber Operations Education are attracting sponsors for the center, including a $15,000 donation from Truist, the nation's sixth-largest bank after it merged SunTrust and BB&T.

UNG will compete in six more cyber competitions during the spring 2020 semester, including the NSA Cyber Exercise set for April in Maryland.

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