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Virtual City to Test Preparedness for Cyberwarfare

The Pentagon is building a "CyberCity" that simulates real communications and operations, reports Robert O'Harrow Jr. Government hackers will train to attack and defend the nation's critical infrastructure in cyberspace.
November 29, 2012, 1pm PST | Jessica Hsu
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"Think of it as something like the mock desert towns that were constructed at military facilities to help American soldiers train for the war in Iraq," says O'Harrow. "But here, the soldier-hackers from the Air Force and other branches of the military will practice attacking and defending the computers and networks that run the theoretical town." He's describing a virtual city being built on computer networks run by a New Jersey-based security firm for use by "government hackers preparing for battles in cyberspace."

Government hackers will be placed in virtual scenarios involving a bank, hospital, power plant, train station and coffee shop. For example, "[i]n one scenario, they will attempt to take control of a speeding train containing weapons of mass destruction" and "[a]nother involves a hijacked Navy vessel and plotters who have been communicating on FaceSpace." Ed Skoudis, founder of Counter Hack, the security firm that is developing the project, said, "It might look to some people like a toy or game. But cyberwarriors will learn from it."

Two years ago, the Pentagon declared cyberspace to be "the newest domain of war." U.S. forces had secretly used the computer "worm" Stuxnet to disable almost 1,000 of Iran's uranium centrifuges, explains O'Harrow, and Skoudis and Air Force officials wanted to convey to cyber warriors that hacking can have a great impact on real-world operations. Last month, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta voiced the government's fear that digital attacks "could be as destructive as the terrorist attack on 9/11." He said, "If a crippling cyberattack were launched against our nation, the American people must be protected. And if the commander in chief orders a response, the Defense Department must be ready to obey that order and to act." However, O'Harrow warns that, "Behind those fears is an unsettling reality: Networks in the United States will remain vulnerable to attacks for the forseeable future because no one understands cyberspace well enough to ensure security."

CyberCity is one of hundreds of virtual test beds launched in recent years to simulate the "security challenges posed by cyberspace, where millions of attacks or intrusions occur every day." Not only is it difficult to create realistic virtual environments, but also, Skoudis added, "The problem is the bad guys are getting better much faster than we are. We don't want to fall further behind on this." Government hackers are expected to begin practice missions in CyberCity in the upcoming weeks.

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Published on Monday, November 26, 2012 in The New York Times
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