With an influx of viruses and hacks compounding by the minute in the digital age, enhanced cyber security has become a high priority for the U.S. military.
Based on the American shortage of talent in cyber security and the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, the Air Force Association created the Cyber Patriot program in 2009, a series of cyber-defense competitions created to motivate students toward careers in these areas.
Under the supervision of newly retired Lt. Col. Don Daugherty, eight Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps students at Ocoee High School have begun their cyber security journeys, entering their first Cyber Patriot competition Oct. 24. The team finished in the middle of the pack nationally but seventh among Floridian teams, with a score of 110 out of 200.
“I used to help develop cyber-simulators to train people for the Air Force,” Daugherty said. “I was hired here in August to be an instructor and lead a team in the Cyber Patriot competition. The competition was created mostly for high-school kids, training to be cadets in any of the services. They wanted military people to grow into the leaders of cyber-defense.”
Though being a cadet is not required, most of the participants from more than 1,500 U.S. schools are cadets, Daugherty said. He is listed as the coach for competitions, a requirement for registered teams, which are split into JROTC and non-JROTC divisions, he said.
The sponsor of Cyber Patriot is Northrop Grumman Corp., which provides equipment and technical support for participants. This corporation hosts the competition via its California servers.
“Now it’s three rounds, and they give you a file that’s really large,” Daugherty said. “You go in and have to kind of act like an IT person at a company — you want to configure it. You’re under attack. You look for vulnerabilities, which sounds simple, but really, that’s what the whole competition is for. It’s like being a doctor and guarding against all the ways the body can come under attack.”
The need to guard against every possible threat during competitions is so difficult that the attacking team almost always wins, Daugherty said.
“Just like with the human body, you can never make it so perfect that you can’t get infected,” he said.
Ocoee High School is one of seven schools in Orange County to have a Cyber Patriot team, among around 50 statewide, said senior Haresh Maharaj, whom Daugherty selected to lead Ocoee High’s team in preparation and competition.
“One of the things I love about this is that most of the members of our team had (little), if any, tech experience,” Haresh said. “The program isn’t just to compete: it’s a very good educational tool. I’ve gotten to see these kids blossom into — not IT guys yet — but they can actually hold their own.”
Haresh said interest in the program had grown surprisingly fast in just the few months of the school year so far, with all sorts of students gaining interests in computer science. The team needs to be student-run to generate interest in programming that classes simply cannot in high school, he said.
“You need someone who can break down the jargon,” Haresh said. “We can sit here and I can throw words at you like worms or Malware. It honestly won’t stick, because it’s jargon. We need it to be students because they communicate with each other. Our team tries to get together once a week, besides our normal meeting. We’ll get a bit of work done; we’ll play a bit — it’s like a game for us.”
The students are learning skills that will be relevant in college, especially for some pursuing computer science, Daugherty said. Haresh said he would pursue computer engineering in college, along with perhaps all of his teammates, with this program providing a head start for that education. The talent at Ocoee is abundant, and it could help at a national level, Daugherty said.
“Threats are everywhere; most people don’t understand that,” Daugherty said. “You’d be amazed at how these attacks originate. There are some from China, Russia and some other places, but it could be Canada or anywhere. There are millions of attacks, all the time. Some are more complicated than others, but they can come from anywhere or anybody. It’s like the poor man’s nuke: You can log on at a Holiday Inn and, if you have the right software and knowledge, you could do a lot of damage.”
One of the scariest parts of cyber attacks is that a name or even country could be untraceable to its origins, Haresh said. Cyber Patriots’ job is to patch computers so that they are as secure as can be within the six hours of the competition, he said.
“I’d say the biggest threats are just software, insecure networks that are already in place,” he said. “It’s like building a castle on pillars of sand. Anyone can make their own program, and whatever they do with it is up to them.”
Most people do not even know they are under attack, Daugherty said. There are means organizations have devised to use others’ computers without their knowledge, which makes it hard to find the attackers, he said. Vulnerability to these attacks can be reduced drastically with stronger password protection, he said. Among recent victims of cyber attacks have been major organizations, such as Target, JP Morgan and even NASA.
Space Command provides the technological resources for the U.S. cyber-defense program, mainly because it had the largest computers at the time of the program’s birth decades ago, Daugherty said.
Ocoee’s Cyber Patriots competed in another round Friday, Nov. 14, finishing around the middle of 1,500 U.S. teams with a score of 150 out of 300. They received a large file package with an operating system to use via their computers, with a mixture of useful, useless and potentially even harmful files to sort.
“Our first goal is to remove any problems within the system, so we’ll do our basic things, such as check for viruses, programs that should not be there, firewalls turned on, a backup ready,” Haresh said. “After that, we make it more secure. We convert file types that are more secure. We delete any files that we don’t want, such as personal files like music and pictures.”
A cookie known as a robot tracks specific instances of protection and rewards competitors with points for certain security measures, Daugherty said. The team goes through a checklist of security measures, including advanced encryption, without any certainty as to which will trigger points from the robot, sometimes securing even more than they would need to, Haresh said.
The top teams from each division, about 30 teams, are invited to the national finals each spring in National Harbor, Maryland. Winning teams there earn education grants from Northrop Grumman to the schools they choose: First-place teams receive $2,000 per member; second-place teams get $1,500 per member; and third-place teams receive $1,000 per competitor.