Texas A&M students complete all four tiers of 2015 NSA Codebreaker Challenge

March 9, 2016
| By: Rachel Rose

Two Texas A&M University students in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Ryan Vrecenar and Zach Varnadore, completed all four tiers of the third annual National Security Agency 2015 Codebreaker Challenge – an impressive feat very few have accomplished.

More than 2,000 students from colleges and universities nationwide competed in the prestigious challenge, which lends students the opportunity to test their creative problem solving abilities in order to solve a fictitious, but realistic cyber threat. Texas A&M ranked fifth in student participation.

Only 54 students solved all four tiers. The NSA builds the challenge in a way that each tier becomes progressively more difficult and poses a completely new problem to be solved by the students.

Varnadore said that he has learned a lot of what he used for the challenge through the education he is receiving at Texas A&M. 

“I was able to complete the challenge using knowledge, tactics and intuition that I have learned over the past year or two from studying certain computer engineering topics such as reverse engineering, he said.”

The challenge, designed to create a platform for students across the nation to develop the mindset required to solve real world problems, is anticipated to grow and continually improve in the years to come.

“The Codebreaker Challenge was a truly intriguing experience,” Vrecenar said. “I embrace the challenges and entered the Ph.D. program to gain advanced training in math modeling and algorithms design. It is truly an invaluable experience to better grasp safe programming and have fun taking apart binary.” 

In addition to Vrecenar and Varnadore’s success, the university also performed well. As part of a sponsored activity by the recently-formed Texas A&M Cybersecurity Club, the university finished seventh overall out of the 329 schools, and ranked first as the school with the most Level 1 solutions. Dr. Dan Ragsdale, director of the Texas A&M Cybersecurity Center and professor of practice at Texas A&M, and Dr. Philip Ritchey, instructional assistant professor, are the faculty advisors for the cybersecurity club, which serves as an open forum for students to engage in community service projects and to compete against students at other universities in cyber defense and "capture the flag" competitions. 

Photo, left to right: Ragsdale, Varnadore, Vrecenar and Dr. Steve Liu, professor, Department of Computer Science and Engineering.  

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