In a mission to develop the future cybersecurity workforce, sailors from the Pensacola Naval Complex mentored high school students in the second annual CyberThon event last weekend at Naval Air Station Pensacola.
Thirty-seven northwestern Florida students played the role of newly hired information technology professionals tasked as the first responders for cybersecurity threat detection and response of a small company.
Hosted at the National Flight Academy by the Blue Angels Chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, CyberThon’s focus is to develop the future cybersecurity workforce through challenging youth to participate in real-world cyber operations and defense sessions. The event brought together community leaders, cyber experts and cyber competitors from local schools.
“There are students from last year [who] are doing this again, [who] came back and are excited about the event and what they learned,” said Cryptologic Technician (Collection) 1st Class Kenneth Hornfeldt, a cryptologic technician (collection) ‘C’ school instructor at the Center for Information Dominance (CID) Unit Corry Station. “This has been a fantastic opportunity to mentor students who are very excited about cyber.”
Sailors from the Navy’s IW training arm at CID Unit Corry Station, as well as from Navy Information Operations Command (NIOC) Pensacola, joined with other mentors from the military, Department of Homeland Security, University of West Florida, and industry.
“CyberThon is great, because first of all you get to use tools that cybersecurity experts actually use in the field,” said Caroline Sears, a Pensacola Catholic High School student and Navy family member, considering a career in cyber and perhaps the Navy. “You get to talk to cybersecurity experts. You hear about their stories and how they ended up doing cybersecurity. Whenever we see something come up, [our mentor] talks about what it is, how we would counter it if we are able to counter it, so hearing his insights on how he would address the problem is definitely good.”
The mentors provided guidance to the student teams as they used security tools and defense tactics to find cybersecurity vulnerabilities and defend the network.
“We’re using open-source technologies, and we’re teaching these kids how to look at an event such as a web server attack and trace it back and figure out who the attacker was and give them mitigation strategies, like how would you stop this from happening in the future,” said Chief Cryptologic Technician (Networks) Ron Judy, a Joint Cyber Analysis Course (JCAC) instructor at CID Unit Corry Station. “Of course, there are multiple things you can do like make sure your web server is up to date, shut down any unnecessary services, any number of things.”
The students were challenged to harden the information technology infrastructure to prevent, mitigate and deter cyber intrusions and maintain efficient system and network operations.
“My favorite part personally is being guided by people who know more than me,” said Josiah Robinson, a Pine Forest High School student from Pensacola. “Another team had a phishing attack, so they got email links and suspicious links that could have infected them. We have a denial-of-service attack that we have to deal with and also a SQL injection attack.”
During opening ceremonies, Cmdr. Joseph Sears, an IW officer and commanding officer of NIOC Pensacola, encouraged the students to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and careers in the cyber field.
“As a nation, one of our greatest struggles is to recruit and grow a cyber cadre to work in this demanding career field,” said Sears. “I can’t think of a better way to inspire young people to want a career in cyber than to make this type of environment (at CyberThon) available to inspire those kinds of skills.”
Sears helped set the stage for the students with a description of the cyber risk, threats and vulnerabilities facing the United States, and proposed one way the students could be a part of the answer.
“The nation has deemed (cyber) important enough that the services were tasked to create a new cadre of cyber professionals, both military and civilian, to stand up the Cyber Mission Force (CMF),” said Sears, telling the students that the nation needs their skills, especially curiosity, creativity, persistence and collaboration.
With the Department of Defense developing 133 CMF teams by 2018, students like the ones participating in CyberThon will be in high demand to sustain the cyber workforce.
“I want you to be the next generation of cyber warriors that are going to fight and win this nation’s battles in cyberspace,” said Sears.
This year, volunteer Sailors also interacted with 33 elementary school students as they toured the event venue and engaged in cybersecurity games and activities designed to spark interest at an even earlier age in the cyber field.
“It really opens up your eyes to how much society doesn’t know, as far as what the possibilities are and what we can do and the power behind computers,” said Cryptologic Technician (Networks) Seaman Anthony Chavez, a reservist attending JCAC at CID Unit Corry Station, who started his cyber career a little later in life. “For (the students), getting the exposure at such a young age is a great experience and opportunity.”