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November 6, 2004
This message appeared yesterday on the computers of Army Reserve units across the country: "Infidel -- Your imperialistic ways have gone too far! You will no longer spread your godless filth around the world. We have infiltrated your networks, and we will soon eradicate your existence from the earth!" The message wasn't sent by Osama bin Laden from a cave in Afghanistan. It came from Staff Sgt. Hank Askin in an office building in Coraopolis. Askin is part of a special unit within a special unit of the U.S. military whose purpose is to protect Army computer systems from hackers, be they teenage pranksters or disgruntled employees, terror networks or hostile foreign governments. "We try to simulate the cyber threats we have in real life," said Maj. David Young, who is in charge of the "red" cell of which Askin is a member. Young, Askin and 350 other reservists gathered in Coraopolis and at four other sites across the country are part of the Army Reserve Information Operations Command, headquartered near the campus of the University of Maryland. Soldiers have been assigned to the command on the basis of what they do in civilian life rather than what they were trained to do by the Army. All are experts in computers and computer security. About a quarter of the command's soldiers already have been mobilized to provide information security for active units, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Young, a certified public accountant in Rochester, N.Y., in civilian life, is in charge of the "red," or opposition, cell in the exercise, but most of the ideas for how to attack the "blue" computer networks were coming from Spc. Philip Rodrigues of Brooklyn, whose day job is chief of information security for New York University. Rodrigues had been a military policeman, but left the Army Reserve before 9/11. He re-enlisted afterward. "My old unit had gone to Iraq," he said. "I wanted to help." An active duty Army unit is responsible for information security -- the First Information Operations Command based at Fort Belvoir, Va. -- but the reserve unit has two advantages over it, said Lt. Col. Philip Coler of Harrisburg, who in civilian life works for the EDS company on information security contracts for the Navy and Marine Corps. The civilian employment of most of the soldiers helps them keep abreast of new developments in the field of computer security and provides them with a breadth of view few in the active forces get, Coler said. For instance, he said, his civilian job keeps him aware of policy developments in computer security, while his Reserve drills enhance his technical skills. And because the Reserve soldiers already have jobs in the civilian computer industry, they are less likely to leave the military for better paying jobs elsewhere, he said. The soldiers of the Army Reserve Information Operations Command each have completed or will complete a training program designed by the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. CMU designed a five-day basic course in computer security and a five-day advanced course. Though "this is all brand new," the Army is training for computer security in the same basic fashion it conducts more traditional types of soldier training, said Lt. Col. Douglas Gardner, who in civilian life works on the Defense Department's Joint Task Force for Global Network Operations. First, individual skills are taught, just as soldiers are taught how to shoot a rifle and put on a gas mask. This is the purpose of the CMU courses. Second, soldiers practice in small groups. Finally, large unit exercises are conducted. This week's was the first ever. The challenge for the "blue" cells around the country was to achieve a balance between computer network security and usability. "The most secure computer is one that isn't plugged in, but that's a computer that isn't of much use," said Coler, who is in charge of the "blue" cell in Coraopolis. His team has tried to construct a "defense in depth" that makes it hard for a hacker to penetrate his network, and easy to detect and contain a penetration if one is made, Coler said. The "red" cell had a lot of success penetrating the blue cells early in the exercise, but is finding it much harder going as the exercise winds down, he said. "It was very much like a green unit coming under fire for the first time," Rodrigues said. "They're learning. It's kind of fun to watch them improve over time." Though the exercise is designed to protect Army computer networks, the lessons learned will have applications for protecting water and electrical systems and other critical civilian computer networks, Coler said.
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