The Charger Blog

University Charges to Impressive Finish in NSA Competition

Several Chargers recently competed in the NSA Codebreaker Challenge, a competition developed by the National Security Agency, finishing in 12th place out of more than 450 schools across the country. Several students were also recognized by the NSA as high achievers for their outstanding performance.

March 8, 2024

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Cybersecurity students at the University of New Haven.
Cybersecurity students at the University of New Haven.

Ronnie Scarpa ’25 and his fellow Chargers recently had the chance to play the role of National Security Agency (NSA) employees as they competed against students from schools across the country. It was an exciting way for Scarpa to demonstrate what he’s learned as a cybersecurity and networks major on a national stage.

Scarpa and his classmates excelled as they completed a series of tasks as part of the NSA 2023 Codebreaker Challenge, which recently wrapped up. Competing against more than 450 schools from across the country, the Chargers powered to a 12th place finish. Students completed tasks individually for points, and their combined scores made up the score their school received. Scarpa was also among the University’s top finishers.

“I think it's really telling that we were able to get so high up on the leaderboard even though we didn’t have as many students participating as some of the schools,” reflects Scarpa. “Massive schools had a huge advantage, since they had so many more students getting points for their school. The fact that we still got more points than many bigger schools shows that we might not be the biggest, but we still have some extremely skilled students.”

“The amazing 12th place finish puts us in the top three percent of the colleges and universities that competed in this challenge,” explained Prof. Liberty Page, M.S., program coordinator for the University’s undergraduate cybersecurity and networks program. “Three of our students completed Task 7, which was challenging, and will be recognized for this individual achievement by the NSA. I am so proud of our students!”

‘Real-world experience’

As part of the competition, students had a fictional mission to play the roles of NSA employees providing technical assistance to the U.S. Coast Guard after an unidentified signal was discovered near U.S. waters. They were to help identify and investigate the unknown object that was producing the signal.

The competition included nine progressively more challenging tasks that built on each other. Tasks included exploiting vulnerabilities in software to determine the IP addresses of potential bad actors, as well as reverse engineering software extracted from a fictional spy balloon.

“Since the challenge was made by the NSA, we can expect it to resemble real tasks an NSA employee would be expected to complete,” said Scarpa. “Classes can only teach you so much, so it's really important for students to get some real-world experience. I think the challenge is a really great way of doing that.”

‘Get involved’

Scarpa says Task 7 was the most challenging. He recalls that it took a great deal of trial and error to figure out how the attacker’s server stored responses based on the IP address it came from. He completed the task, and he was recognized by the NSA as a high achiever. The University, too, has been recognized by the NSA as a National Center of Academic Excellence (CAE) in Cyber Operations (CAE-CO), a designation that recognizes the University’s bachelor’s degree programs in cybersecurity & networks and computer science.

While Scarpa didn’t know exactly what to expect when he started the challenge, he says his time at the University meant he felt well prepared for the tasks that followed.

“The Assembly class I'm taking now would've been perfect preparation for the third task,” he said. “Some of the higher-level classes, such as Assembly, Reverse Engineering, Systems Programming, and Ethical Hacking, also cover some topics relevant to the challenge.”

Scarpa says taking part in the Codebreaker Challenge was so critical because it offered students experience beyond what can be taught in the classroom. He’s grateful he had the opportunity to take part in it, and he encourages his fellow Chargers to immerse themselves in hands-on opportunities.

“I think it's really important for students to know that they need to get involved in events outside of the classroom such as the Codebreaker Challenge,” he said. “Classes alone will not give students such real-world experience. Getting involved in extracurricular activities such as the Hacking Club will also open the door to competitions that can give us valuable experience we otherwise wouldn't have. Additionally, competitions look great on a resume.”