It seems like such a small thing: a little block “house” attached to a circuit board going dark.
In the real world, it would mean hundreds or thousands of homes just lost power. On Saturday, it just meant that some college students were getting schooled by the pros.
That was the situation the members of Columbia Basin College’s Cyberhawks found themselves in as they worked furiously to restore their website during the national Cyber Defense Competition.
Kemal Begzadic, one of the Cyberhawks, explained that hackers got hold of an administrator password and were creating mischief. The Cyberhawks were trying to figure out what happened and fix it.
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The CBC team was one of 26 college squads in three national labs defending their mock natural gas drill, power plant and distribution system from hackers.
The event brought college and university teams to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Ill.
Teams from Washington State University, Oregon State University, Highline College, University of Idaho and Northeastern University in Seattle also came to Richland. This is the first time PNNL has participated.
It sounds simple — keep the lights on — but the student “Blue Team” groups started working on their websites a month ago.
A group of volunteers used those websites along with a written set of instructions to “buy” power.
If they can’t buy power, the lights go out.
Red Team, Blue Team
It’s noticeably quieter inside the conference room where a crowd of cybersecurity professionals hunkered over computers preparing the next test for the students next door.
On a wall, they could see their counterparts in Illinois and Tennessee.
This was Red Team.
There were people from Bonneville Power Administration, Washington state’s Office of Cybersecurity and Cisco Systems, along with PNNL staff members.
“We tried to build our Red Team as opposed to just inviting whoever,” said Lori O’Neil, a cyber and energy researcher. “We wanted to get people who do this in their day job.”
They spent Friday scouting and collecting information to use to attack the student’s systems.
While they are testing the student’s systems, they’re not here to simply give the students a beat down, O’Neil said. The goal is to give students experience dealing with the type of threats they will see once they graduate. Red Team’s job is to “help them feel good about this and encourage them to go into a career in cybersecurity.
“That’s where the rubber meets the road.”
An added benefit in bringing all of these professionals together is they learn from each other.
“In the National Laboratory system, we have the world’s leading cybersecurity experts,” said L. Devon Streit, a Department of Energy deputy assistant secretary. “Being able to highlight these amazing institutions ... to both the students and to our industry partners is really a win-win-win.”
Keeping the lights on
These students can’t learn their profession fast enough to fill the ever growing need for cybersecurity professionals, according to the Information Systems Audit and Control Association.
The non-profit advocacy group predicts the world will need 2 million more cybersecurity professionals by 2019.
The need is the same to protect the nation’s electrical grid, Streit said.
“What I’ve been hearing from the colleges and universities here is (that) what is really eye-opening for the kids is to physically see a mockup of a piece of infrastructure and realize that is what they’re protecting,” she said.
Cyberhawks adviser Matt Boehnke agreed, saying it brings what his students are learning into the real world.
This competition is tailored toward the jobs many of the CBC students will get when they finish school.
“We hope competitions such as this serve to inspire the next generation of talent critically needed to keep our nation safe secure and prosperous for decades to come,” said PNNL director Steve Ashby.