Rethinking cyber learning—consider gamification

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This post originally appeared on Microsoft’s Security Blog, authored by Mark McIntyre, Executive Security Advisor, Enterprise Cybersecurity Group

Cyber Monday and Black Friday Cyber Security Safety Tips to Prevent Holiday Hacks  

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If you’re anything like me, you get really excited when the holidays roll around. The music is cheerful (the Hallmark Channel is on 24/7–high five!), the fireplace is roaring, and I can curl up with my blanket and mobile phone to SHOP ONLINE (of course). Ah, the spirit of the holidays…But the bah humbug part about the scene I’ve just set, is I’m not the only one feeling “festive.” Cybercriminals LOVE when surges in online shopping occur because people are looking for the best deals on gifts, bargain hunting, and planning for the biggest online shopping days of the year: Black Friday and Cyber Monday. This means adversaries can more easily manipulate our holiday spirits with cyberattack methods like phishing and social engineering, credit card fraud, and more.

So while you prepare your winter festivities and “add to cart,” consider these 12 tips to keep your “digital dwelling” safe and warm during Cyber Monday and Black Friday, especially.

Shop from websites you know and trust. 

Don’t click on those flashy “hot deals” that are likely too good to be true. Scammers deliver ads based on your interests, offering sweet discounts or great deals to get the click. Now is NOT the time to experiment with new retail websites and apps.

Don’t go “public.” 

Avoid public Wi-Fi when using the Internet, especially when accessing sensitive data like your bank account balance or emails. Your personal information isn’t a “gift” you want to give a hacker this holiday season.

Update your operating systems. 

With a little more downtime during the holidays, take a merry minute to keep your operating systems as current as possible. This also goes for apps on your phone.

Refresh your passwords.

Enter into the New Year with stronger, more secure passwords—something that will keep a criminal out of your personal property and prevent identity theft. Things like symbols and numbers to replace letters add a layer of complexity that make passwords harder to crack. Consider using a password manager to store all your different passwords so you don’t forget them!

To ensure you are protected from any precocious cyber predator, check our security awareness game inCyt, a fun way to learn cyber concepts and attack methods while cozying up on your couch with a hot toddy. You can practice proactive cyber readiness during the holidays—and year-round with this sweet resource. 

Don’t click on suspicious links. 

Scammers, like the Grinch, will impersonate real online retailers and stores to get you to open an email and click on links while you are holiday shopping. Don’t! This phishing email tactic opens the door for them to install malware on your computer and before you know it, your data is stolen and compromised.

Look for the lock. 

Secure websites will often have a lock icon in the browser address bar to indicate it is a secure connection.

Get creative with security questions. 

Your mother’s maiden name or favorite food can most likely be found online somewhere, so try getting creative with your security questions to access your accounts. Choose a motto you live by perhaps or choose an answer to a question that is completely opposite of what you would select.

Watch your bank and card activity.

Hackers can see your financial activity when you’re sleeping and when you’re awake if you’re not careful. Diligently monitor your bank account, online transactions, and card activity and notify your financial services provider if you observe any suspicious activity.

Disable auto-connect.

Some devices will auto-connect to available wireless networks. Ensure you are only connected to wireless and Bluetooth networks when devices are in use or about to be used. Unknowingly being connected is the opportune time for hackers to cause damage right under your nose.

Store devices when away. 

If you’re a busy traveler, criminals seek out meal times to check hotel rooms for unattended laptops and mobile devices. Be especially wary when attending conferences or trade shows as guest networks tend to be more vulnerable to attacks (and allows hackers to access lots of data from lots of people, who are all in one convenient location).

Activate double authentication. 

If you haven’t done so already, ensure all your apps have a double authentication factor so every time someone tries to log in to your online account, they need a code or key that is texted to your phone or sent to your email to gain access. That makes unintended access to things like social media accounts more difficult for cybercriminals.

Practice persistent protection.

Hackers aren’t just looking to exploit individual data, they also target businesses knowing many take extra time off this time of year to spend with loved ones. Ensure your company has a strong cybersecurity response plan in place and key members of your threat intelligence, analysis, and fraud teams are consistently practicing responding to threat scenarios. Our Project Ares platform runs on Microsoft Azure, so professionals can practice cyber offense and defense from anywhere, at any time on a gamified cyber range.

It’s important to practice safe online behavior all year-round but the holidays bring about an extra level of digital activity hackers love to exploit. Make sure you are taking proactive measures to ensure you are having the most wonderful online shopping day of the year—and cybercriminals aren’t.

 

 

Immersive Cyber Training with Project Ares: Ramping Up a Cyber Career

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As promised, I’m back with a follow-up to my recent post on how we need modernize the learning experience for cybersecurity professionals by gamifying training to make learning fun.  Some of you may have attended the recent Microsoft Ignite events in Orlando and Paris.  I missed the conferences (ironically, due to attending a cybersecurity certification boot camp) but heard great things about the Microsoft – Circadence joint “Into the Breach” capture the flag exercise.  If you missed Ignite, we are planning several additional “Microsoft Ignite The Tour” events around the world, where you’ll be able to try your hand at this capture the flag experience.  Look for me at the DC event, right after the Super Bowl, in early February.

In the meantime, due to the great feedback that I received from my previous blog (which by the way I do really appreciate, especially if you have other ideas for how we should be tackling the shortage of cyber professionals), I will be digging deeper into the mechanics of learning to understand what it really takes to learn cyber in today’s evolving landscape.  I want to address the important questions of how a new employee would actually ramp up their learning, and how employers can prepare employees for success, and track the efficacy of the learning curriculum.  Once again, I’m pleased to share this post with Keenan Skelly, chief evangelist at Boulder, CO-based Circadence.  Take a look a look at some of her recommendations:

 

Q: Keenan, in our last blog, you discussed Circadence’s ‘Project Ares’ cyber learning platform.  How do new cyber practitioners get started on Project Ares?

The way that Project Ares is set up allows for a user to acquire a variety of different skill levels when launched.  It’s important to understand what kind of work roles you are looking to learn about as a user. What kinds of tools you’re looking to understand better before you get started on Project Ares. For example, if I were to take some of my Girls Who Code, or Cyber Patriot students and put them into the platform, I would probably have them start in the Battle School. This is where they’re going to learn about basic cybersecurity fundamentals, things like ports and protocols, regular expressions and the cyber kill chain. Then they can transition into Battle Rooms, where they will start to learn about very specific tools, tactics and procedures (TTPs), for a variety of different work roles. If you are a much more skilled cyber ninja, however, you can probably go ahead and get right into Missions, but we do recommend that everyone who comes into Project Ares does do some work in the Battle Rooms first, specifically if they are trying to learn a tool or a skill for their work role.

In Project Ares, we have a couple of different routes that an expert or an enterprising cybersecurity professional can come into that’s really focused more on their role. For example, we have an assessments area that is based entirely on the work role. That aligns to the NIST framework and the NICE cybersecurity work roles. For example, if you are a network defender, you can come into that assessment pathway and have steps laid out before you to identify your skill level in that work role.

 

Q: What areas within Project Ares do you recommend for enterprise cyber professionals to train against role-based job functions and prepare for cyber certifications?

You might start with something simple like understanding very basic things about your work role through a questionnaire in the Battle School arena. You may then move into a couple of Battle Rooms that tease out very detailed skills in tools that you would be using for that role. And then eventually you’ll get to go into a mission by yourself, and potentially a mission with your entire team to really certify that you are capable in that work role. All of this practice helps prepare professionals to take official cyber certifications and exams.

 

Q: Describe some of the gamification elements in Project Ares and share how it enhances cyber learning. 

One of the best things about Project Ares is gamification. Everyone loves to play games, whether it’s on your phone playing Angry Birds, or on your computer or gaming console, so we really tried to put a lot of gaming elements inside Project Ares.  For example, everything is scored within Project Ares, so everything you do from learning about ports and protocols, to battle rooms, to missions gives you points, experience points—those experience points add up to skill badges. All these things make learning more fun for the end-user. For example, if you are a defender, you might have skill badges in infrastructure, network design, network defense, etc.  and the way Ares is set up, once you have a certain combination of those skill badges you can actually earn a work role achievement certificate within Project Ares.

This kind of thing is taken very much from Call of Duty, or other types of games where you can really build up your skills by doing a very specific skill-based activity and earning points towards badges. One of the other things that is  great about Project Ares is it’s quite immersive, so the Missions, for example, allow a user to come into a specific cyber situation or cyber response situation (e.g. water treatment plant cyber attack) and be able to have multimedia effects that demonstrate what is going– very much reflective of that cool guy video look. Being able to talk through challenges in the exercises with our in-game advisor, Athena, adds another element to the learning experience. She, Athena, was inspired by the trends of personal assistants like Cortana and other such AI “bots” which have been integrated into games. So these things like chat bots, narrative storylines, and skill badges are super important for really immersing the individual in the process. It is so much more fun, and easier to learn things in this way, as opposed to sitting through a static Power Point presentation or watching someone on a on a video, trying to learn the skill passively.

 

Q: What kinds of insights and reporting capability can Project Ares deliver to cyber team supervisors and C-Suite leaders to help them assessing cyber readiness? 

Project Ares offers a couple great features that are good for managers, all the way up to C-Suite individuals who are trying to understand how their cybersecurity team is doing. The first one is called Project Ares Trainer View. This is where a supervisor or manager can actually jump into the Project Ares environment with the students or with the enterprise team members and actually do that in a couple of different ways. So for example, the instructor, or the manager can jump into the environment as Athena, so that the user doesn’t know that they are in there, they can provide additional insight or help that is needed to a student.

A supervisor or leader can also jump in as the opponent, which gives them the ability to see someone who is just breezing by everything, to maybe make it a little more challenging; and then of course, they can just observe and leave comments for the individuals.  That piece is really helpful when we are talking about managers who are looking to understand their team’s skill level in much more detail.

The other piece of that is a product we have coming out soon called Dendrite.  Dendrite is an analytics tool that looks at everything that happens at Project Ares so we record all the key strokes, any chats that a user has with Athena, the in game advisor, and any chatting a user may have done with other team members while in a mission or battle room.  Cyber team leads can really see what’s going on, and as a user, you can see what you’re doing well, and what you’re not doing well.  That can be provided up to the manager level, the senior manager level, and even to the C-Suite level to demonstrate exactly where that individual is, in their particular skill path. It helps cyber team leads to understand what tools are being used appropriately and which tools are not being used appropriately.

For example, if you are a financial institution and you paid quite a bit of money for Tanium, but upon viewing tool use in Dendrite, you find that no one is using it. It might prompt you to rethink your strategy on how you are using tools in your organization optimally. Or, how you’re training your folks to use those tools. These types of insights are absolutely critical if you want to understand the best way to grow the individual in cybersecurity and make sure they are really on top of their game.

 

Q: How do non-technical employees improve their cyber readiness?

Here at Circadence we don’t just provide learning capabilities for advanced cyber warriors. For mid-range people just coming into the technical side of cybersecurity, we have an entire learning path that starts with a product called inCytÔ. Now, inCyt is very fun, browser-based game of strategy where players have some hackable devices that they have to protect, like operating systems and phones. Meanwhile, your opponent has the same thing objective: protect their devices from attacks. Players continually hack each other by gathering intel on their opponent and then launching different cyber attacks. While they’re doing this, players actual get a fundamental understanding of the cyber kill chain.  They learn things like what reconnaissance means to a hacker, what weaponizing means to a hacker, what deploying that weapon means to a hacker, so that they can start to recognize that behavior in their everyday interactions online.

Some people ask why that’s important and I always say: “I used to be a bomb technician, and there is no possible way I could defuse an IED or nuclear weapon without understanding how those things are put together.” It’s the same kind of concept.

It’s impossible to assume that someone is going to learn cyber awareness by answering some questions or watching a five-minute phishing tutorial, after they have already clicked on a link in an suspicious email. Those are very reactive ways of learning cyber. inCyt is very proactive. And we want to teach you in-depth understanding of what to look for, not just for phishing but for all the attacks we are all susceptible to. inCyt is also being used by some of our customers as a preliminary gate track for those who are interested in cybersecurity. So you may demonstrate a very high aptitude within inCyt in which case we would send you over to our CyberBridge portal where you can start learning some of the basics of cybersecurity and see if it might be the right field for you. Within our CyberBridge access management portal, you can then go into Project Ares Academy which is just a lighter version of Project Ares.

Professional and Enterprise licenses in Project Ares pave more intricate learning pathways for people to advance in learning from novice to expert cyber defender. You’ll be able to track all metrics of where you started how far you came, what kind of skill path you’re on, what kind of skill path you want to be on. Very crucial items for your own work role pathway.

 

How to close the cybersecurity talent gap

Keenan’s  perspective and the solution that is offered by Project Ares really helps to understand how to train security professionals and give them the hands-on experience they require and want.  We’re in interesting times, right?  With innovations in machine learning and artificial intelligence, we’re increasingly able to pivot from reactive cyber defense to get more predictive.  Still, though, right now we are facing a cybersecurity talent gap of up to 4 million people depending on which analyst group you follow, so the only way that we are going to get folks interested in cybersecurity is to make it exactly what we have been talking about: a career-long opportunity to learn.

Make it something that they can attain, that they can grow in, and  see themselves going from a novice to a leader in an organization.  This is tough right now because there are relatively few cybersecurity operators compared to demand, and the operators on the front lines are subject to burnout, with uncertain and undefined career paths beyond tactical SecOps.  What’s to look forward to?

We need to get better as a community in cybersecurity, not only protecting the cybersecurity defenders that we have already, but also helping to bring in new cybersecurity defenders and offenders who are really going to push the boundaries of where we are at today.  This is where we have an excellent and transformational opportunity to introduce more immersive and gamified learning, to improve the learning experience and put our people in a position to succeed.

 

To read more about how to close the cybersecurity talent gap, please read this ebook.

For more information on Microsoft intelligence security solutions visit:  https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/security/business

Living our Mission Blog Series: How Tony Hammerling, Curriculum Developer, Orchestrates a Symphony of Cyber Learning at Circadence

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Circadence’s Curriculum Developer Tony Hammerling wasn’t always interested in a career in cyber—but he was certainly made for it. In fact, he initially wanted to be a musician! While his musical talents didn’t pan out for him early in his career, he quickly learned how to create unique harmonies using computers instead of instruments…After joining the Navy in 1995 as a Cryptologist and Morse Code operator, he transitioned to a Cryptologic Technician Networks professional where he performed network analysis and social network/persona analysis. It was there he learned more offensive and defensive strategies pertinent to cyber security and was introduced to network types and communication patterns. He moved to Maryland to do offensive analysis and then retired in Pensacola, Florida. The world of cyber grew on Tony and he enjoyed the digital accompaniment of the work it offered.

For the last few years, now settled in Pensacola, Florida, Tony is a critical part of Circadence’s Curriculum Team, working alongside colleagues to develop learning objectives and routes for players using platforms like inCyt, Project Ares, and other cyber games like NexAgent, Circadence’s immersive network exploration game. Currently, Tony and his team are focused on building out learning of network essentials in NexAgent, and “…are bridging the gap between what new IT professional’s learn in NexAgent and getting them onto more advanced learning pathways in Project Ares,” says Tony.

“We’re starting to introduce new content for [Project Ares] battle rooms so users coming out of NexAgent can have an understanding of the tools and techniques needed for more advanced learning of cyber defense—and actually apply those tools and techniques in realistic scenarios.”

As the technical subject matter expert for cyber curriculum, Tony digs into the details with his work—and that’s where he shines. Tony and his team ensure that user learning is reflective of today’s cyber attacks and vulnerabilities. In the next iteration of NexAgent, users will be able to focus on network segmentation using election security as the theme for game-play. From separating election polling servers to working with registration databases to designing networks to prevent election fraud, learning becomes much more interesting for the end-user.

The most exciting part about Tony’s job is the diversity of material he gets to work on every day. One day he could be helping end-users of Project Ares identify fraudulent IP addresses in a battle room and another day he could be working on a full-scale technical design of a SCADA system modeled after a cyber incident at a Ukrainian power plant.

By understanding corporate demands for new content, Tony and his team have more direction to build out cyber learning curriculum that aligns to customer’s needs. He believes the technical training he’s able to support with learning material in Circadence’s platforms complements traditional cyber learning paths like obtaining certifications and attending off-site classes. The variety of learning options for users of all cyber ability levels (both technical and non-technical), gives professionals the opportunity to be more thoughtful in their day-to-day lives, more critical and discerning of vulnerabilities and systems, and more creative in how they address threats.

“Knowing that people are able to come into a Circadence product and learn something that they didn’t know before or refine specific knowledge into an application/skill-based path is exciting. I don’t think too much of the greater impact my work provides—but perhaps 10 years down the line when we can say ‘we were the first to gamify and scale cyber training,’ it will mean so much more.”

We are grateful for the unique talents Tony brings to the Circadence family of products and how he’s able to craft learning “chords” that when orchestrated, provide a symphonic concerto of cyber learning activity—empowering cyber professionals across the globe with relevant, persistent, and scalable cyber training options to suit their security needs.

Photo by Marius Masalar on Unsplash

Photo by Alphacolor on Unsplash