Christian College Student Claims Win In National Security Agency’s Codebreaker Challenge

Monday, February 12 2024 by Jordan Foley/Richard D. Hunt

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Kaicheng Ye: "I was on the verge of giving up so many times, but I kept trying and trying.”
Cedarville University
Kaicheng Ye: "I was on the verge of giving up so many times, but I kept trying and trying.”

Not many people can say they have won a national championship. 

Kaicheng Ye, a junior from Beavercreek, Ohio majoring in cyber operations and computer science at Cedarville University, however, can claim to win the 2022 National Security Agency’s Codebreaker Challenge. 

For the past couple of years, Ye has made an enduring impact on the cybersecurity program at Cedarville. He is a fellow for Cyber Exercises, which is a leadership position that manages, researches, and organizes practices for future cyber competitions that Cedarville students compete in.  

The National Security Agency (NSA) holds the annual codebreaker challenge competition every year, allowing participants to use their technical skills in mission-centric scenarios–which is similar to the work of the NSA. During the competition, participants complete nine tasks, which can take months.  

The main storyline of the 2022 Codebreaker Challenge was a ransomware attack on a company that impacted important files that were locked behind a strict password/key. In the competition, Ye and the other participants were required to restore those files by finding the key to retrieve the files. Other challenges included exploiting a website's vulnerability, retrieving the entire source code of the site, and exploiting a SQL injection vulnerability to retrieve the password of an admin user.  

“I was able to take my time on the challenges, which is where I think my ability really shines,” said Ye. He used the Codebreaker Challenge as a learning opportunity despite sometimes feeling frustrated and puzzled. During the competition, Ye relied on God to guide him in every task.  

For Ye, the hardest and most memorable challenge was the fifth task, which involved getting a private key from the memory of an SSH agent. This task required the participants to search for stored credentials on a computer that is highly protected, which took the most time and was the least intuitive. The fifth task challenged and strengthened his cyber skills the most during the competition.   

Before the competition, Ye said that he gained experience from competing in collegiate cyber defense competitions and Cedarville University’s rigorous classes, which prepared him with the problem-solving skills to win this competition. He credits Cyber Forensics, taught by Prof. Nicholas Parry, as the class that prepared him most for the competitions and his future career.  

“Before coming to Cedarville, I was thinking of either computer science or computer engineering. But when I looked on Cedarville’s website, I saw this cyber operations major. At that time, it was the first year the major was offered, and I had never heard of cyber before. But I knew almost immediately that it was the major I wanted even though I had no experience. I believe that God led me to choose this major and has given me the ability to thrive in this field,” said Ye.  

As the Codebreaking Challenge was coming to a close, Ye reflected on a moment when he almost gave up. “Competing in the Codebreaker Challenge has strengthened my patience and reminded me that there is light at the end of the tunnel. One question had me stuck for two months. I was on the verge of giving up so many times, but I kept trying and trying.”  

However, just when he was about to throw in the towel, he finally completed the challenge and was greeted with the “success” notification. “It was the most surreal I have ever felt. I’m pretty sure I was literally floating,” said Ye.  

Ye’s championship accomplishment did not surprise Dr. Seth Hamman, Cedarville University’s director and associate professor of cyber operations and computer science. Hamman also leads Cedarville University's Center for the Advancement of Cybersecurity

“Kaicheng brings a high-level passion and dedication tothe cybersecurity program because he has dedicated many, many hours to these contests and has achieved impressive results,” said Hamman. “His accolades are a blessing to him, but he has also blessed the entire cyber program by raising our profile on a national level. He is a role model for other students.”  

Ye’s obvious talent for code breaking has profoundly impacted Cedarville’s cybersecurity program, and he plans to let God lead him to a career that will allow him to showcase his skills for Christ.  

Located in southwest Ohio, Cedarville University is a Baptist university with undergraduate programs in arts, sciences, and professional programs, and graduate programs. With an enrollment of 5,456 students in 175 areas of study, Cedarville is one of the largest private universities in Ohio and is recognized nationally for its authentic Christian community, rigorous academic programs, and high graduation and retention rates. For more information about the University, visit cedarville.edu

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