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NSA Invites Students to 'Hack Us!'

FILE - Simon Choi, a South Korean cybersecurity researcher, watches his personal computer during an interview in Seoul, South Korea.
FILE - Simon Choi, a South Korean cybersecurity researcher, watches his personal computer during an interview in Seoul, South Korea.

Ever think about hacking into the U.S. government’s data system? Wanna try?

If you can develop a network signature for an intrusion detection system (detect hacking), or perform forensic analysis of a compromised endpoint (detect hacking before it collapses the system), the National Security Administration wants you to try.

Registration is open for the 2017 Codebreaker Challenge. The contest asks college students to use reverse engineering or the ability to take apart code and fix from scratch a fictional break-in of a government data system. The scenario helps the Department of Homeland Security disarm an improvised explosive device using cybersecurity skills to prevent civilian casualties.

“Reverse engineering is a crucial skill for those involved in the fight against malware, advanced persistent threats, and similar malicious cyber activities,” the NSA website says. “As the organization tasked with protecting U.S. government national security information systems, NSA is looking to develop these skills in university students (and prospective future employees).”

Each year, undergraduate and grad students who compete to master six tasks will receive a small token of appreciation from the NSA for being among the first 50 finishers, and possible credit from the student’s college or university.

  • Setup a test instance of the system (Task 0)
  • Analyze suspicious network traffic (Task 1)
  • Develop a network signature for an intrusion detection system (Task 2)
  • Analyze critical system components for vulnerabilities (Tasks 3 and 4)
  • Perform forensic analysis of a compromised endpoint (Task 5)
  • Craft an exploit for the botnet server and devise a strategy to clean the infected endpoints (Task 6)

Registration for students with a valid email address ending in .edu started September 15 and continues until December 31.

FILE - In his June 6, 2013, photo, the National Security Agency campus is pictured in Fort Meade, Maryland.
FILE - In his June 6, 2013, photo, the National Security Agency campus is pictured in Fort Meade, Maryland.


This year, some have gotten close, but no one has completed all six tasks, so far, says the Codebreaker Challenge website. As of September 25, students from 335 colleges and universities have tried.

The most participants in 2016 came from Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, with 149 students taking the challenge, but only five completing all six tasks, which also ranks first for most successful participants.

In addition to Georgia Tech, three students from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, completed every task; as well as three from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. one from University of Maryland, College Park, one from Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., one from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., and one from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.

Last year, 3,325 students from 481 colleges and universities attempted to finish all six tasks; only 15 students were successful. Robert Xiao from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh completed every task in just under 18 hours, which was nearly two and a half days quicker than the next fastest finisher.

“I find computer security to be a fascinating subject, and I was really lucky to be accepted at Carnegie Mellon, which has an excellent computer security reputation,” said Xiao, who was born and raised in Canada.

Carnegie Mellon ranks in the top 20 for cybersecurity schools in the U.S. and is known nationwide as a pipeline for future computer security experts. Xiao is on the Plaid Parliament of Pwning (PPP) hacking team at CMU and says the team, “participates in worldwide computer security competitions and does very well.”

That’s not an understatement. In fact, the PPP hacking team has won eight straight virtual capture-the-flag competitions at New York University’s Cyber Security Awareness Week and won the World Series of Hacking college competition four of the past five years.

The 2017 Codebreaker Challenge “is very challenging and covers a wide range of subjects ... but it takes a lot of time and effort at first,” Xiao says. “Don’t get discouraged if it seems too hard, that’s totally normal at first.”

Xiao is doing a Ph.D. in what he calls “human-computer interaction,” in which he wants to merge computer security and human interaction.

“The subject of ‘usable’ human-friendly security is really important and only a handful of people are thinking really hard about it,” he said. Essentially, Xiao wants to expand the use of computer security for those who might not be the most adept at using computers; in other words, make computer security easier for the everyday user.

Instructions and storyline for this year's challenge can be found on the Codebreaker Challenge website.

Can you crack the code?

What do you think about the National Security Administration's invitation? Please share your suggestion in the Comments here, and visit us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn, thanks!

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Australian, Chinese university chiefs meet in Adelaide

FILE - Students walk around the University of New South Wales campus in Sydney, Australia, Dec. 1, 2020.
FILE - Students walk around the University of New South Wales campus in Sydney, Australia, Dec. 1, 2020.

Australian university leaders held talks Wednesday with their Chinese counterparts over the Canberra government’s plans to cut the number of international students. Australia has said the reductions will ease the stress on housing and reduce immigration.

Representatives from the Group of Eight Universities, which represents large research-intensive institutions in Australia, met Wednesday in Adelaide with leaders from the China Education Association for International Exchange.

The Chinese delegation included senior officials from 22 leading research-intensive universities in China.

In a joint statement, the two groups said that “our research and education links not only deliver enormous economic and social benefits for both countries, but also foster enduring people-to-people ties.”

The talks focused on “constructive dialogue focused on challenges and opportunities around university research in a fast-evolving, globalized world.”

One major challenge is Australia’s plans to cap the number of international students it allows into the country to relieve pressure on housing and rental accommodation in the major cities. It is part of a broader effort to reduce immigration.

In 2023, official data showed that 787,000 international students studied in Australia, exceeding levels seen before the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the tertiary sector says plans to shut out some foreign students would cost the economy billions of dollars.

Vicki Thompson is the chief executive of the Group of Eight Universities. She told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Wednesday that it is unclear how far international student numbers would be cut.

“At the moment there is a lot of unknowns about what this will actually mean. We are in very good discussions with government, though. They certainly understand the impact that our international education sector has on tourism, on the economy. So, you know, they do not want to bust it either. It is just how can we come to, I guess, a compromise position where, you know, we do not damage one of our most successful export markets,” she said.

Most overseas students in Australia come from China, India, Nepal, the Philippines and Vietnam, according to government data.

Under the government’s plans, colleges and universities would have to provide purpose-built accommodation for international students if they wanted to exceed the caps on numbers.

Specific quotas for foreign students, however, have not yet been made public by the Canberra government.

Australia’s plan to curb the number of students from other countries is expected to be discussed when Chinese Premier Li Qiang meets Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Canberra next month.

Some shuttered universities appear to reopen on the web 

FILE - A magnifying glass is held in front of a computer screen in this picture illustration taken in Berlin, May 21, 2013.
FILE - A magnifying glass is held in front of a computer screen in this picture illustration taken in Berlin, May 21, 2013.

At least nine universities that have closed appeared to be looking for new students on the web, but the schools are neither accredited nor cleared to accept student aid.

In a USA Today investigation, Chris Quintana looks at what might be going on with the imposter websites. (May 2024)

Taliban push for normalizing male-only higher education

FILE - Taliban members are seen at Kabul University in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 14, 2023.
FILE - Taliban members are seen at Kabul University in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 14, 2023.

In coming weeks, tens of thousands of students in Afghanistan are set to sit for university entrance examinations.

Notably absent from the list of candidates will be females.

The upcoming exams are expected to determine the admission of about 70,000 students to public academic and professional institutions this year.

Last week, when officials from the Taliban's Ministry of Higher Education unveiled the specifics of the upcoming exams, they conspicuously omitted any mention of the exclusion of female students from university admissions.

Despite facing widespread domestic and international criticism for their prohibition of women from educational and professional opportunities, the Taliban have persisted in enforcing discriminatory gender policies.

“The exclusion of women from higher education significantly limits the country's economic potential, as half the population is unable to contribute effectively to the workforce,” David Roof, a professor of educational studies at Ball State University, wrote to VOA.

In December 2022, the Taliban suspended nearly 100,000 female students enrolled in both public and private universities across Afghanistan.

With the nation already grappling with some of the most dire female literacy rates globally, Afghanistan has failed to produce any female professionals over the past two years.

According to aid agencies, the absence of female medical professionals, compounded by other restrictions, has contributed to the deaths of thousands of young mothers in Afghanistan.

The United Nations reports that over 2.5 million Afghan school-age girls are deprived of education.

“The interruption in education can result in a generational setback, where entire cohorts of women remain uneducated and unqualified for professional roles,” Roof said.

'Hermit kingdom'

The elusive supreme leader of the Taliban, Hibatullah Akhundzada, purportedly responsible for the ban on women's education and employment, has never publicly clarified his directive.

Initially, when secondary schools were shuttered for girls in March 2022, Taliban officials said the action was "temporary," insisting that the Islamist leadership did not fundamentally oppose women's education.

However, more than two years later, Taliban officials have provided no rationale for the continued absence of girls from classrooms.

“They have normalized gender-apartheid,” said an Afghan women’s rights activist who did not want to be named in this article, fearing the Taliban’s persecution.

“This is a new norm in Afghanistan, however insane and destructive it may look in the rest of the world,” she added.

In January 2022, the U.S. Department of State appointed Rina Amiri as the special envoy for Afghan women, aiming to garner international backing for Afghan women's rights.

Amiri has actively engaged with Muslim leaders, emphasizing the importance of women's rights in Islam, in hopes of influencing Taliban leaders.

Despite these efforts, there has been no indication from Taliban leaders of any intention to abandon their discriminatory policies against women. “There is no indication this will subside,” Amiri told a Congressional hearing in January.

Senior U.S. officials have also warned the Taliban that there will be no normalization in their relations with the international community unless they allow women to return to work and education.

Thus far, the Taliban’s response has been that they value depriving women of basic human rights more than having normal relations with the rest of the world.

Hong Kong can help link students in US, China 

FILE - A visitor sets up his camera in the Victoria Peak area to photograph Hong Kong's skyline, Sept. 1, 2019.
FILE - A visitor sets up his camera in the Victoria Peak area to photograph Hong Kong's skyline, Sept. 1, 2019.

Pandemics, climate change and other global challenges require nations and scientists to work together, and student exchanges are a great way to foster that cooperation.

Writing in The South China Morning Post, Brian Y.S. Wong explains that Hong Kong has a crucial role to play in connecting students in the United States and China. (May 2024)

Learn about religious accommodations in US colleges  

FILE - St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., March 16, 2022.
FILE - St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., March 16, 2022.

From prayer services to housing options and vegetarian meal selections, colleges in the United States offer ways to accommodate students of various faiths.

In U.S. News & World Report,Anayat Durrani explains how you can learn about religious accommodations at colleges and universities. (April 2024)

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