By TOM ROEDER
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
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
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
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