By KEVIN HOWE
Herald Staff Writer
Cyberspace is a battleground that the U.S. military should learn to
dominate, just as it has land, sea and air, says an expert with the
Naval Postgraduate School's computer science department.
"Destroying a computer infrastructure is like denying somebody air,"
said Scott Cote, senior lecturer in the school's Center for Information
Security Studies and Research.
Students at NPS waged a four-day battle in cyberspace that pitted them
and each of the service academies . Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard,
Merchant Marine, and the Air Force Institute of Technology . against a
team of computer hackers fielded by the National Security Agency last
The schools could only defend, said Navy Lt. Mateo Robertaccio, a
student in NPS' information systems technology and management course,
who took part in the cyberbattle.
"We would have liked to do offense, it's easier," he said. A defender
must protect every vulnerable point of a computer system. An attacker
only has to find one chink in the firewall's armor. "You can't make one
mistake. It has to be perfect."
Now in its eighth year, the annual cyberwar exercise is meant to give
students who volunteer a chance to "get their hands dirty" while
learning about the vulnerability of computer systems, Cote said.
The students and instructors were required to use a variety of systems -
Windows, Linux and Mac - some of which had compromising programs
implanted in them that needed to be ferreted out.
As the exercise progressed, the Navy school's e-mails and other systems
had to remain open.
"It's like having a business," Cote said. "A customer could be a burglar
casing the store, or a customer. You have to be able to be open for
They also had a budget limit for hardware and firewall software to add
realism to the exercise. "You couldn't buy your way out of trouble,"
He postulated a situation in which a U.S. technology team was sent to
help a NATO ally that might have older equipment, legacy systems. "You
couldn't just say, 'throw out all this stuff and buy new.'"
"They forced us to use things that have weaknesses," Robertaccio said,
Every Navy ship, he said, has a different computer operating system, and
the Navy can't replace them all.
This year's cyberwar exercise drew 30 students, about half of them
civilians, he said. "There's a big human element to this. A lot of it
was based on making sure we had the right teams in the right subgroups."
A terrorist cell doesn't have to use bombs to cause damage, Cote said.
"You can attack the Pentagon and physically destroy the building, or you
can attack it so its network doesn't function."
Only one cyber attack from NSA got through the NPS firewall during the
four days, Cote said. "We were 99.4 percent perfect, but that didn't
matter. One compromise . once they get into the system . they can wreck
The Air Force Institute appeared to be the top scorer, he said, and the
undergraduate service academies didn't do as well, because its students
didn't have as much background in computer science as the graduate
The penetration of a computer system would register on a graph in red,
Cote said. "We'd call that 'bleeding.' The Naval Academy bled for days."
Cote and Robertaccio compared the computer exercise to a live-fire
exercise with planes, tanks or ships firing real bullets, shells and
Planning for each year's event begins in October and continues through
May with an after-action analysis following the actual cyberspace battle
in late April.
Funding the exercises is "a hard sell" in Washington, Robertaccio said,
but it teaches a lot of lessons. "I hope we can do an attack next year."
Meanwhile, students who took part can carry away a sense of how systems
can be attacked, the damage that can be done, and the ways to guard
The idea is to stave off a catastrophic event resulting from a massive
attack on a critical computer network.
"A lot of people are waiting," Cote said, "for a cyber Pearl Harbor."
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