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UNG wins NSA Codebreaker Challenge for second year in a row

February 1, 2021

Even with changes to the National Security Agency (NSA) Codebreaker Challenge in 2020, including a vastly expanded scope of tasks from previous years, the University of North Georgia (UNG) emerged victorious for the second year in a row.

UNG students, faculty and staff tallied 323,150 points, while second-place Georgia Tech finished with 74,010. Oregon State University, University of Cincinnati, and University of California, Santa Cruz rounded out the top five of the event that wrapped up Jan. 31.

Eighty-nine UNG participants completed the first six tasks of the challenge, with no other school having more than seven players complete that many tasks. UNG also had 27 participants complete the seventh task, with the next-closest school having four competitors reach that point. UNG's team had 168 participants complete at least one task.

The challenge created a fictional scenario that required students to call upon physics, drone hacking, reverse engineering and signals analysis skills to locate and recover a journalist kidnapped overseas.

"It's exciting to see the level of teamwork the students put in and the persistence our students have in competitions," said Dr. Bryson Payne, director of UNG's Center for Cyber Operations Education and professor of computer science in the Mike Cottrell College of Business. "The students appreciated how realistic the challenge was. It felt like they were solving a real-life case."

UNG finished third in the 2018 challenge before its consecutive NSA Codebreaker Challenge wins. Dr. Ash Mady, department head of computer science and information systems, appreciates UNG's consistency since launching a cybersecurity bachelor's degree in 2018.

"It's a reflection of the education the students receive in the cybersecurity program. It's a reflection of the faculty involvement and engagement with the students," Mady said. "We take this seriously because it shows that students are trained to do what the industry expects them to do."

Houstoun Hall, a sophomore from Athens, Georgia, pursuing a degree in cybersecurity, is president of the CyberHawks student club that along with the Center for Cyber Operations Education supports students taking part in cyber competitions.

"We have perseverance and drive. We want to get through this whole challenge," Hall said. "It's a great help in proving your skills to employers."

Each student worked through a customized version of the challenge that required up to 100 hours of problem-solving, but the process of sharing approaches to tasks was a form of teamwork allowed as part of the challenge.

Brenna Durham, a senior from Canton, Georgia, pursuing a degree in cybersecurity, said UNG students fed off their collaborative approach.

"It's really rewarding," Durham said. "It shows how knowledgeable we are and how well we work together."

Ryan Fisher, a junior from Douglasville, Georgia, who is pursuing a degree in cybersecurity and is a member of the Georgia Army National Guard, said UNG's small class sizes enhance the school's cybersecurity instruction compared with places where a lecture could have as many as 100 students.

"Because we have classes with 30 students, we get to have more attention to detail on topics in a shorter amount of time," Fisher said.

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