USA — CyberPatriot: Preparing for tomorrow’s battles today

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. (AFNS) — Today, just about every aspect of our lives is some­how con­nect­ed to the Inter­net. Our per­son­nel records can be found online as well as our finan­cial records, employ­ment infor­ma­tion — just about every­thing that iden­ti­fies who and what we are.

Air Force Junior ROTC Cadet 2nd Lt. Clay­ton Husk, at back, assists Cadet Air­man Cham­ber­lain James, left, and Cadet Air­man Joseph Ceniza in clos­ing loop­holes in their net­work secu­ri­ty dur­ing the Cyber­Pa­tri­ot IV com­pe­ti­tion at the Nation­al Har­bor, Md., March 23, 2012. Their team, ‘Air Pirates’, from Spokane, Wash., went on to win sec­ond place in the All-Ser­vice Divi­sion of the event. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Alexan­der W. Riedel)

On the job, the Inter­net is even more per­va­sive. Every­thing from our elec­tron­ic mil­i­tary per­son­nel flight to order­ing and track­ing equip­ment, per­form­ing main­te­nance and con­trol­ling the skies and space — from unmanned drones to the deploy­ment of nuclear weapons — are now prod­ucts of cyber­space. Our reliance upon the Inter­net and the cyber world has also caused a new threat: one attack could dis­rupt and, in the extreme, affect the Air Force mis­sion as a whole. 

At a hotel just on the out­skirts of Wash­ing­ton, D.C., a group of some of the nation’s top tech-savvy high school stu­dents met to test their cyberde­fense skills in a con­test that could launch them into careers as the next gen­er­a­tion of cyberde­fend­ers. Called Cyber­Pa­tri­ot, the annu­al con­test pit­ted stu­dents from Junior ROTC, cadets from the Civ­il Air Patrol and high school stu­dents from through­out the U.S. and Cana­da against sim­u­lat­ed cyberenemies. 

As com­peti­tors, stu­dents learn about a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent threats and how to com­bat those threats. 

“We apply secu­ri­ty appli­ca­tions such as antivirus, anti­mal­ware, secu­ri­ty ana­lyz­ers and secu­ri­ty con­fig­u­ra­tions to pro­tect the com­put­ers from out­side threats,” said Kyal Lanum, an 11th-grade stu­dent and a mem­ber of the CAP Cyber­Pa­tri­ot team Wolf­pack, from the Col­orado Springs Cadet Squadron in Colorado. 

Cyberde­fense experts at the com­pe­ti­tion showed stu­dents and spec­ta­tors cas­es of just how vul­ner­a­ble the nation is to cyberthreats. Sim­ple devices, such as lap­tops and smart phones, chang­ing elec­tron­ic bill­boards and rais­ing and low­er­ing a draw bridge at the will of the device oper­a­tor are just a few of these examples. 

As harm­less as these exam­ples may sound, a per­son with a more mali­cious agen­da could use this type of tech­nol­o­gy to shut down pow­er grids or shut down the coolant sys­tem of a nuclear reac­tor. These threats have caused Air Force cyber offi­cials to say that a proac­tive defense is the future of keep­ing the Air Force and nation safe from these threats. 

Cyber­Pa­tri­ot is one exam­ple of a proac­tive effort. The Air Force Asso­ci­a­tion-spon­sored competition’s focus is on groom­ing the nation’s youth to be the next wave in cyberde­fense. And their efforts are pay­ing off. In 2009, Cyber­Pa­tri­ot start­ed with only eight teams con­sist­ing of JROTC and CAP cadets. In 2012, more than 1,000 teams reg­is­tered and the growth is expect­ed to con­tin­ue, said Bernard K. Skoch, the com­mis­sion­er of Cyber­Pa­tri­ot and a retired Air Force brigadier general. 

The com­pe­ti­tion has at least one Air­man wish­ing he were offered the same opportunity. 

“When I was in high school, this is the kind of com­pe­ti­tion that I would have loved to be a part of,” said Air­man 1st Class Jacob Coburn, a 23-year-old radio oper­a­tor with the 89th Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Squadron at Joint Base Andrews-Naval Air Facil­i­ties Wash­ing­ton, Md. “They did­n’t have this kind of stuff back then.” 

In Coburn’s opin­ion, intro­duc­ing teens to cyberde­fense at this stage in their life is impor­tant, and this con­test is doing just that. Coburn, whose broth­er, Brax­ton Allen, was a com­peti­tor, added that what the par­tic­i­pants do dur­ing Cyber­Pa­tri­ot is very sim­i­lar to real-world tasks that his squadron car­ries out every day, espe­cial­ly the mon­i­tor­ing of their com­mu­ni­ca­tions network. 

“With­in the Air Force mis­sion, clear­ly the biggest chal­lenge … is find­ing the right peo­ple,” Skoch said. “The Air Force’s mis­sion to fly and fight now includes cyber­space. They need tal­ent just like every enter­prise does, and I think Cyber­Pa­tri­ot is groom­ing that tal­ent at the high school age.” 

In its brief exis­tence, Cyber­Pa­tri­ot has also allowed teens to get involved in cyberde­fense at unex­pect­ed lev­els, and it has already made its mark on the Air Force. For exam­ple, mem­bers of this year’s win­ning team in the open divi­sion, from Alamo Acad­e­mies in San Anto­nio, cur­rent­ly serve as interns, and full-fledged fed­er­al civil­ians, as part of the 67th Net­work War­fare Wing at Joint Base San Anto­nio-Lack­land, Texas. 

“Every­one has per­formed above expec­ta­tion,” said Jacob Stauf­fer, the 33rd Net­work War­fare Squadron Intru­sion Foren­sic Sec­tion chief and intern­ship pro­gram super­vi­sor for the 67th NWW at JB Lackland. 

Stauf­fer cit­ed a few exam­ples of how the interns have stood out. One intern, work­ing in the inci­dents response sec­tion, dis­cov­ered infor­ma­tion that led to an inves­ti­ga­tion and even­tu­al­ly an offi­cial inci­dent being opened dur­ing his first week on the job. Anoth­er intern, work­ing in the mis­sion assur­ance divi­sion, has been nom­i­nat­ed to go to the Air Force Academy. 

Cyber­se­cu­ri­ty is a huge issue for the Air Force and the gov­ern­ment as a whole, Stauf­fer said. Teach­ing high school stu­dents these com­put­er-relat­ed func­tions and the pos­i­tive aspects of the func­tions, as opposed to the more mis­chie­vous ones, is very important. 

“Com­put­er net­work oper­a­tions is one of those bat­tles that we must start fight­ing now,” said Stauffer. 

From intern­ships to cyberde­fense careers, Stauf­fer believes the Cyber­Pa­tri­ot com­peti­tors will be held in high regard as they pur­sue a future in cybersecurity. 

“Not only is this a tech­ni­cal com­pe­ti­tion, it’s also a study in lead­er­ship,” said CAP Capt. Bill Blatch­ley, the coach of the CAP Cyber­Pa­tri­ot team Wolfpack. 

Cyber­se­cu­ri­ty will con­tin­ue to be an inte­gral part of a grow­ing depen­dence on tech­nol­o­gy. Accord­ing to cyber­se­cu­ri­ty indus­try lead­ers, a proac­tive approach will be key to the secu­ri­ty of the infor­ma­tion safe­guard­ed with­in the net­works. Through this approach, the Air Force will con­tin­ue to improve its tac­tics, and com­pe­ti­tions like Cyber­Pa­tri­ot will help pave the way. 

“Cyber­Pa­tri­ot is about build­ing the work force that can feed not only the Unit­ed States Air Force, but can feed every ele­ment of our econ­o­my, every ele­ment of our nation,” Skoch said. 

If the Air Force is set up in a proac­tive envi­ron­ment, it can take advan­tage of what it under­stands about its net­work and its adver­saries, said Maj. Gen. Suzanne Vautrinot, the com­man­der of 24th Air Force and Air Force Net­work Oper­a­tions at JB Lack­land. This can lead to supe­ri­or­i­ty in defend­ing the nation’s part of cyberspace. 

“You can be proac­tive in the defense, and if you are proac­tive in the defense, I guar­an­tee it is a game chang­er,” Vautrinot said. 

U.S. Air Force 

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