Mines notches top-10 finish in NSA Codebreaker Challenge

Colorado School of Mines students hacked their way to a top-10 finish in one of the most important cybersecurity competitions in the nation.

Twenty Mines students participated in the 2018 NSA Codebreaker Challenge, which ran from the end of September through Jan. 6. Combined, their scores were enough to tie for 10th place out of a field of 377 U.S. universities, Mines’ highest finish ever.

Ryan Hunt, who graduated with a master’s degree in computer science in December, was one of only a handful of students nationwide to complete all eight of the challenge’s increasingly difficult tasks. The hands-on competition allows students to develop their reverse-engineering and low-level code analysis skills while working on a realistic problem set centered around the NSA mission.

“There’s a negative perception of hacking, but it’s actually a good skill to have if it’s used ethically,” said Hunt, who has accepted a job with Google in Boulder. “The challenge was a really good chance to learn something I wasn’t going to learn in the classroom -- reverse engineering is not generally a computer science skill but it can still be useful. I really enjoy picking up new things. That’s what really motivated me to keep going and finish the challenge.”

This year’s scenario focused on ransomware and blockchain technology. 

“A new strain of ransomware has managed to penetrate several critical government networks and NSA has been called upon to assist in remediating the infection to prevent massive data losses,” the challenge read. “For each infected machine, an encrypted copy of the key needed to decrypt the ransomed files has been stored in a smart contract on the Ethereum blockchain and is set to only be unlocked upon receipt of the ransom payment. Your mission is to ultimately (1) find a way to unlock the ransomware without giving in to the attacker’s demands and (2) figure out a way to recover all of the funds already paid by other victims.”

The last task, defeating the ransomware and retrieving the files, took Hunt the better part of three weeks to complete, he said. Two other Mines students, Alexey Yaremenko and Zach Kasica, also completed six of the eight tasks. 

“That final challenge was the hard part,” Hunt said. “It requires developing and being really creative and thinking about how something can work in a way that the designer did not intend it to work. That requires a little bit of perseverance.”

Hunt heard about the competition in his Information Security and Privacy class, taught by Computer Science Associate Professor Chuan Yue. Yue’s research focuses on security and privacy in web, mobile, cloud, cyber-physical and IoT systems.

“The NSA Codebreaker Challenge is one of the most important student-oriented cybersecurity competitions in the nation. It allows our students to have more hands-on experience with cybersecurity, to learn new things beyond their courses and to explore the potential job opportunities in the U.S. government organizations,” Yue said. “That Mines students finished in 10th place among 377 participating U.S. universities indicates they are very eager to learn cybersecurity knowledge and skills either inside or outside of the classroom and are very capable of applying what they learned to address challenging problems.”

Emilie Rusch, Public Information Specialist, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3361 | erusch@mines.edu
Mark Ramirez, Managing Editor, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3088 | ramirez@mines.edu

About Mines
Colorado School of Mines is a public research university focused on science and engineering, where students and faculty together address the great challenges society faces today - particularly those related to the Earth, energy and the environment.