April 24, 2008
Bleary-eyed cadets at the Air Force Academy, including members of a group dubbed the "nerdy dozen" for its computer prowess, have spent the week battling the nation's electronic spy agency in an all-out cyberwar.
The cadets and students at other military-run schools nationwide are competing in the National Security Agency's 8th Annual Cyber Defense Exercise. The team that wins is the team that can defend its specially built computer network from viruses, e-mail attacks and security penetrations by the NSA's world-class hackers.
It's an around-the-clock job.
"The cadets are so exhausted, they've been taking naps in the computer lab," said Capt. Sean Butler, a computer science teacher overseeing the academy's team.
Using computers supplied by the NSA, the cadets have spent weeks assembling a computer network that's a smaller version of the one used at Air Force bases. Everything is kept separate from other school networks so the make-believe war doesn't spill over and crash computers that aren't in the game.
Cadets said this time the NSA's devious minds cooked up a new twist on older exercises. The computers they supplied the academy were loaded with legitimate-looking software with well-hidden traps. On Tuesday, the cadet-built network was thoroughly hacked through using programs the NSA had hidden on the machines.
"There were certain things that should have been caught earlier," said senior cadet Tom Aseltine of Wilton, Me.
In the exercise, the cadets strictly focus on defense - preventing and overcoming attacks. The goal is to keep their network functioning so services such as e-mail and Internet access remain functional despite the NSA's best efforts.
"We seem to be doing pretty well," said senior cadet Brad Seehawer of Milwaukee, who has been working 14-hour days in the computer lab since the NSA's Tuesday offensive.
The NSA, in an extremely rare news release, said the exercise teaches military leaders about the importance of cyberspace in warfare.
"The Cyber Defense Exercise is a computer security competition designed to foster education and awareness among future military leaders about the role of information assurance in protecting the nation's critical information systems," according to the agency, which is the home of America's code breakers and also spies on e-mail and phone calls of America's enemies.
Air Force leaders last year established Cyber Command on the theory that future enemies will try to destroy America's computer networks as an opening salvo in a war. Colorado Springs remains among several cities in the running to become Cyber Command's permanent home.
Cadet John Cobb, a member of the "nerdy dozen," said he was impressed with the NSA's ability to stay a step ahead of the cadets.
"It can also be a humbling experience," said senior cadet Cobb, of Baltimore.
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