Cyber Ranges and How They Improve Security Training

WHAT ARE CYBER RANGES?

Cyber ranges were initially developed by government agencies looking to better train their cyber operators on new skills and techniques. To do this, a physical range or ranges were installed on-premise.  Cyber range providers built representations of actual networks, systems, and tools that helped cyber professionals safely train in virtual, secure environments without compromising the agency’s operational network infrastructure.

Today, cyber ranges are used in the cyber security sector to effectively train IT professionals in all industries and help improve defenses against cyberattacks. As technology advanced, cyber range training advanced as well, both in scope and potential. More on this later. 

To schedule a demo of Circadence’s cyber range platform, visit https://www.circadence.com/request-a-demo/

The National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education reports that cyber ranges provide:

  • An environment where new ideas can be tested safely and teams and work to solve complex cyber problems
  • Performance-based learning and assessment
  • A simulated environment where teams can work together to improve teamwork and team capabilities
  • Real-time feedback
  • Simulate on-the-job experience

Most cyber ranges come in one of two forms: A network environment without pre-programmed content; or a network environment with prescriptive content that may or may not be relevant to a user’s industry. Either cyber range type limits the learner’s ability to develop enriched skill sets beyond what their specific work role may dictate.  

UNDERSTANDING & EVOLVINGCYBER RANGES IN A BOX 

Typically, Cyber range in a boxhas been a collection of virtual machines hosted on an on-premise systemHowever, Circadence has taken the concept of a cyber range in a box and placed it the cloud to better scale cyber training. We lovingly call this CyRaaS, or Cyber Range-as-a-Service, which is integrated into our Project Ares cyber learning platform.

Instead of purchasing a physical set of machines to take up space in a room, virtual machines exist in the cloud and can be accessed by more professionals from any location who want to train persistently and develop cyber skills. The cloud is recognized as one of the most secure spaces to house network components (and physical infrastructure). To ensure cyber ranges spin up environments quickly, deliver the latest training content, and engage users in productive training activitiesaccessing cyber ranges in the cloud is the latest and greatest approach for professionals training in ‘sandbox’ environments. 

in-game-screeenshot-of-network-map

By offering cloud based, cyber range in a box services to support cyber training in Project Ares, we are able to deliver more relevant tools and technologies to help professionals gain the best cyber security training possible

The service allows Project Ares to emulate industry-relevant network configurations within learning activities that help trainees practice defensive tactics. Cloud-based cyber ranges also offer hands-on keyboard experience with real world tools and emulated network traffic to reflect the authentic feeling of an actual cyberattack.  

Advances in Artificial Intelligence and machine learning allow us to use cloud ranges to their full potential by tracking patterns in training data to reveal player learning progression with minimal human intervention and oversight. Those patterns are then used to inform the recommendations of an in-game advisor (Athena) that has chat bot functionality so players can get help on cyber range training activities in the platformFurther, cloud-based cyber range training gives security professionals better predictive capabilities when defending and anticipating threats—and according to Microsoft, even  “improve the efficacy of cyber security, the detection of hackers, and prevent attacks before they occur.” 

GAMIFIED CYBER RANGES

Not only have we taken physical cyber ranges and placed them in the cloud but we’ve added in elements of gamification to further drive the effectiveness of cyber training. 

With many studies touting the benefits of gamification in learning, it only makes sense that cyber ranges come equipped with sets of gamified elements (e.g. leaderboards, scoring mechanisms, points, badges, levels, etc.). Project Ares has a series of cyber learning games that teach foundational cyber concepts and termsbattle rooms that teach tools, tactics, and procedures, and team-based missions that bring learning full circle when players are tasked with defending against a realistic cyber threat scenario.  This level of cyber learning is done in the cloud so professionals can work together from anywhere in the world to collaborate and defeat modern-day attacks.  

We hope this post helped you understand the true potential of cyber ranges in the cloud and how they are evolving today to automate and augment cyber workforce training and learning.  

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Top Tax Season Scams and How to Avoid Them

Doing taxes can be stressful enough without worrying that your sensitive information may fall into the wrong hands. With more and more taxpayers doing their taxes online, having awareness of potential threats is the first step in practicing cyber safety this tax season. Here are 4 of the most popular tax scams used by hackers each year to be on the lookout for:

 

  1. Tax Refund Fraud – This scam involves and filing false returns with them. They will typically claim a low income with high deductions and will file electronically. When a taxpayer goes to legitimately file their return, it is rejected by the IRS because someone else already filed under that identity. To prevent this, one can request an Identity protection PIN from the IRS before filing. This is a six-digit pin that must be used on a tax return in addition to an SSN in order to verify the identity of the taxpayer.

 

  1. W-2 Email Phishing Scam – Some hackers choose to go straight to the source for private information: employers. Cyber criminals have been known to trick major companies into turning over copies of W-2 forms for their employees. This is actually a CEO imposter scam, where a criminal pretends to be a top company employee and asks payroll or human resources for sensitive information. This information is then used to file bogus returns or is sold online to other criminals.

 

  1. IRS Phone Scam – Scammers make calls claiming they are with the IRS, acting as though a tax bill is owed that one must pay immediately or be arrested. They use common names to identify themselves and fake IRS badge numbers to appear legitimate, send fake emails to support their verbal phone claims, and they will usually call again claiming to be the police department or the DMV in an attempt to extort additional funds. Yikes! One thing to note: the IRS will NEVER call an individual. They send official notices in the mail, but if the IRS pops up on the caller ID, don’t answer.

 

  1. Canceling Your SSN – Criminals are making calls and threatening to suspend or cancel your Social Security numberuntil overdue taxes are paid. The scam may seem legitimate because the caller has personal information, including the last four digits of your SSN. If someone calls and threatens to cancel or suspend your social security number, hang up immediately. If they call back, don’t answer. Write down the number and then report the call on this site, and send an email with the subject of “IRS Phone Scam” to phishing@irs.gov and include the phone number, as well as any other details that are relevant, in the body of the email.

With more taxes processed online and scammers always thinking one step ahead, it’s important for every employee receiving their W-2s to have cyber awareness training. Understanding the risks that are out there help people to feel more empowered to thwart them when handling personal online transactions.

Combatting Tax Scams with inCyt

Circadence is here to help. Our newest product, inCyt, is a browser-based strategy game that invites players with limited cybersecurity knowledge to compete in cyber-themed battles. inCyt’s progressive, inventive cyber learning program teaches cybersecurity awareness through games and interactivity with colorful characters and friendly competition. Lessons are embedded in the gameplay, so players learn cybersecurity basics as soon as they engage with the program. Players start learning basic cybersecurity topics including email security and best practices for software updates before venturing to understand more nuanced concepts about social media, insider threats, ransomware and more. inCyt will be available in Spring 2020.

Empower your employees with persistent, hands-on cyber training. To learn more visit: https://www.circadence.com/products/inCyt

Living Our Mission Blog Series:Early Aspirations in Technology Become a Reality for Circadence’s Paul Ellis

Early Aspirations in Technology Become Reality for Circadence’s Paul Ellis 

Paul Ellis, Senior Product Manager at Circadence, was always interested in technology, even at a young age. When Paul was 8-years oldhe rode his bike to the closest RadioShack to buy a book written for adults on the topic of electrical engineering no lessAfter saving enough allowance to purchase the book, he dove into it as soon as he got home and that’s where his love for technology really began. 

But perhaps, too, Paul’s passion stemmed from his father, who worked for a company developing computer robots. Their bond over technology contributed to Paul’s interest in the field. In factPaul and his father built their first computer together – an 8Mhz Intel 8088 PC when he was 10 years old. Paul read the entire instruction manual from front to back to learn what he could do with his newly built device. From that day on, he was always creating! He created electronic devices, computers, and even composed music. 

In high school Paul played many different instruments and began his college journey with aspirations to become a sound engineer to satisfy his interest for both technology and music. He quickly realized that his interest in technology outweighed his musical career interest, and that the lifestyle of a sound engineer wasn’t very appealing. 

He changed his major to Business and Marketing and graduated with a Bachelor of Science from California State University San Marcos in 2005. He then continued to Purdue University for an MBA in Technology Commercialization, Marketing and Finance. Throughout his academic journey and in his free time he continued to create and assemble tech devices. He was never afraid of technology; he was drawn to it and always knew there was a way to control it. 

Paul, a techie through and through, followed his cyber heart and became a Senior Product Manager for more than a decade for various leading tech firms. He began to learn about identity risk and how our technological advancements were increasing threats. During his time at a previous employer, LifeLock, he learned about risk prevention, identity theft, how vulnerable consumers are in the real worldand how risk would continue to escalate if companies and individuals weren’t taking precautions to protect themselves and their devices.  

Upon joining Circadence, Paul began to navigate the world of cybersecurityThe company’s cutting-edge ideas and technology designed to protect businesses, government and consumers were appealing to him given what he had observed in previous tech positions. He was interested in the innovative products that provided new ways for cybersecurity beginners and professionals to learn, and he could envision how it would improve the cyber posture of enterprises. 

“I feel like I’m doing something positive for society,” Paul said. He’s been with Circadence for a year now as the Senior Product Manager and continues to be inspired by his team and the revolutionary products Circadence brings to market.  

“There’s a huge threat out there, and a huge lack of skills in the industry, and being a part of the solution is a big part of my intrinsic motivation.”  

Paul enjoys partaking in all the different facets of a product’s lifecycle – how the product supports a need for the consumer or industry, how it is marketed, and how to assess its financial viabilityHe also enjoys talking to customers to learn about their experience with a product first-hand, because at the end of the day, a product’s success is dependent upon customer’s experience with it 

Managing the success of a product is how he gauges the success of his career – what did the product solve, and how did it benefit the customer and the industry? The payoff is seeing the cumulative effect of the entire product,” said Paul. For example, iNovember 2019 he worked long hours along-side his team to prepare for one of our largest partner events – Microsoft Ignite. They developed specific gamified battle rooms in Project Ares to teach user’s about Microsoft’s new security tools and how they can be utilized in realistic cyber scenarios. Attendees could get direct experience using Microsoft’s security tools within Project Ares, which runs on Microsoft Azure 

“Ignite was one of the most meaningful moments in my career and I’m fortunate I had the opportunity to work with my team to pull it off! There was so much teamwork, collaboration and problem solving from planning, developing, to deployment at the event. It’s only in bringing people together, that my work succeeds.”  

Paul not only enjoys doing something that keeps consumers and businesses safer, but he truly respects and values his team at Circadence. There’s a true sense of trust between everyone on his team and he feels fortunate to have this experience in the workplace.  

The need for improved cybersecurity is everywhere,” said Paul. The cyber learning products Circadence provides today will help teach the future cyber workforce and help protect us from the countless risks and threats that are out there. He continues to fulfill his passion for technology by bringing Circadence cyber learning products to marketHe appreciates Circadence products because they actually provide trainees what they need to knowand what they will be doing on a day-to-day basis. It’s not just about reading a white paper or watching a video – gamified platforms like Project Ares provide hands-on experience to master the craft of cybersecurity. 

Photo by Alexandre Debiève on Unsplash

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

Living our Mission: Project Ares Takes Full Flight with Cloud-Native Architecture

According to CIO magazine, about 96% of organizations use cloud services in one way or another. In partnership with Microsoft, we are proud to announce that Circadence has redesigned its Project Ares cyber learning platform to fully leverage a cloud-native design on Microsoft Azure.  This new, flexible architecture improves cyber training to be even more customized, scalable, accessible, and relevant for today’s professionals.

This transition to cloud infrastructure will yield immediate impacts to our current customers.

  • Increased speeds to launch cyber learning battle rooms and missions
  • Greater ability to onboard more trainees to the system from virtually any location
  • More access to cyber training content that suits their security needs and professional development interests

Proven success at Microsoft Ignite

At the recent Microsoft Ignite conference (November 2019), more than 500 security professionals had the opportunity to use the enhanced platform.  Conference participants set up CyberBridge accounts and then played customized battle rooms in Project Ares. Microsoft cloud-based Azure security solutions were integrated into the cloud-based cyber range to provide an immersive “cloud-in-cloud” sandboxed learning experience that realistically aligned to phases of a ransomware attack.  The new version of Project Ares sustained weeklong intensive usage while delivering on performance. 

So what’s new in the new and improved Project Ares?

Curriculum Access Controls for Tailored Cyber Learning

One of the biggest enhancements for Project Ares clients is that they can now control permissions for  training exercises and solution access at the user level. Customer Administrators will use the new CyberBridge management portal to tailor access to Circadence training exercises for individual users or groups of users.

Single-sign-on through CyberBridge enables the alignment of training exercises to individuals based on their unique learning requirements including:

  • Cyber skill-building exercises and complex missions within Project Ares for cyber professionals
  • Cyber foundation learning with Cyber Essentials tools for the IT team
  • Security awareness training with inCyt for general staff

Cyber Essential learning tools and the inCyt game for security awareness will be added to CyberBridge over the next several months. With the capability to pre-select training activities reflective of a company’s overall security strategy, enterprise security managers can call the shots.

“As the administrator, you now choose what curriculum content your team should have. “This provides more flexibility in cyber training for our customers in terms of what they can expose to their teams.” ~ Rajani Kutty, Senior Product Manager for CyberBridge at Circadence.

Greater Scalability and Performance in Cyber Training

With a cloud-native architecture design, Project Ares can support more simultaneous users on the platform than ever before. Project Ares can now handle over 1,000 concurrent users, a significant improvement over historical capacity of 200-250 concurrent users on the platform.  The combination of  content access control at the group or individual level and the increased scalability of Project Ares creates a solution that effectively spins up cyber ranges with built-in learning exercises for teams and enterprises of any size.  Additionally, this means that no matter where a cyber learner is geographically, they can log on to Project Ares and access training quickly. We see this as similar to the scalability and accessibility of any large global content provider (e.g. Netflix)—in that users who have accounts can log in virtually anywhere in the world at multiple times and access their accounts.

Now that Project Ares can support a greater volume of users on the platform, activities like hosting cyber competitions and events for experts and aspiring security professionals can be done on-demand and at scale.

“We can train more people in cyber than ever before and that is so impactful when we remember the industry’s challenges in workforce gaps and skills deficiencies.” ~ Paul Ellis, Project Ares Senior Product Manager at Circadence

The previous design of Project Ares required placing users in “enclaves” or groups when they signed on to the system to ensure the content within could be loaded quickly without delay. Now, everyone can sign in at any time and have access to learning without loading delays. It doesn’t even matter if multiple people are accessing the same mission or battle room at the same time. Their individual experience loading and playing the exercise won’t be compromised because of increased user activity.

Other performance improvements made to this version of Project Ares include:

  • Quicker download speeds of cyber exercises
  • Use of less memory on user’s computers, and resulting longer battery life for users, thanks to lower CPU utilization.
  • These behind-the-scenes improvements mean that training can happen quicker and learning, faster.

New Cyber Training Content

One new Mission and three new Battle Rooms will be deployed throughout the next few months on this new version of Project Ares.

  • Mission 15, Operation Raging Mammoth, showcases how to protect against an Election attack
  • Battle Rooms 19 and 20 feature Splunk Enterprise installation, configuration, and fundamentals
  • Battle Room 21 teaches Powershell cmdlet (pronounced command-lets) basics

Mission 15 has been developed from many discussions about 2020 election security given past reports of Russian hacktivist groups interfering with the 2016 U.S. election.  In Operation Raging Mammoth, users are tasked to monitor voting-related systems. In order to identify anomalies, players must first establish a baseline of normal activity and configurations. Any changes to administrator access or attempt to modify voter registration information must be quickly detected and reported to authorities. Like all Project Ares Missions, the exercise aligns with NIST/NICE work roles, specifically Cyber Defense Analyst, Cyber Defense Incident Responder, Threat/Warning analyst.

Battle Rooms 19 and 20 focuses on using Splunk software to assist IT and security teams to get the most out of their security tools by enabling log aggregation of event data from across an environment into a single repository of critical security insights. Teaching cyber pros how to configure and use this tool helps them identify issues faster so they can resolve them more efficiently to stop threats and attacks.

Battle Room 21 teaches cmdlet lightweight commands used in PowerShell.  PowerShell is a command-line (CLI) scripting language developed by Microsoft to simplify automation and configuration management, consisting of a command-line shell and associated scripting language. With PowerShell, network analysts can obtain all the information they need to solve problems they detect in an environment. Microsoft notes that PowerShell also makes learning other programming languages like C# easier.

Embracing Cloud Capabilities for Continual Cyber Training

Circadence embraces all the capabilities the cloud provides and is pleased to launch the latest version of Project Ares that furthers our vision to provide sustainable, scalable, adaptable cyber training and learning opportunities to professionals so they can combat evolving threats in their workplace and in their personal lives.

As this upward trend in cloud utilization becomes ever-more prevalent, security teams of all sizes need to adapt their strategies to acknowledge the adoption of the cloud and train persistently in Project Ares. You can bet that as more people convene in the cloud, malicious hackers are not far behind them, looking for ways to exploit it. By continually innovating in Project Ares, we hope professionals all over the globe can better manage their networks in the cloud and protect them from attackers.

Living our Mission Blog Series: Hitting a Home Run with Circadence’s Security Management, thanks to TS Reed, Cybersecurity Engineer

The journey to cybersecurity engineer has been an exciting one for Circadence’s TS Reed. The former baseball pro turned security tech expert found his passion for problem solving at Circadence. After completing an undergraduate degree in criminology at Cal State Northridge, he pursued a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at CSUN and then a master’s in cybersecurity engineering from the University of San Diego.

TS started as an intern at Circadence and was quickly onboarded as a full-time employee for his technical prowess, adaptability, and knowledge of modern security functions and processes. For the past three years at Circadence, TS has monitored the company’s network security, tested the security of its products (including Project Ares) and learned how and what to look for to stay one step ahead of attackers.

“It’s impossible to be bored in this job. Security is always changing: the way people build it, the way people attack it. You have to continuously learn and teach yourself the latest and greatest practices,” said TS.

But cybersecurity management wasn’t always in the stars for TS. Prior to joining Circadence, TS coached division one baseball at the University of San Diego and was also an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at the University of Arkansas Fort Smith. A Cal State Northridge Alum, TS was a well-respected baseball player, hitting home runs in the athletic industry (named a CIF California Player of the Year and a Division 1 All-American at CSUN) with the fourth highest batting average at the 2008 Big West Conference. After college he went on to play one year of professional baseball in St. Louis for the Gateway Grizzlies of the Frontier League.

He traded in his baseball cleats for cybersecurity after discovering the inherent problem-solving nature of the field—a part of the job that greatly intrigued TS to dive into a completely new field of study and long-term career trajectory.

For TS, one of the best ways to “win the game” in the security field is to think like a hacker. By understanding what vulnerabilities they look for to exploit and why, security engineers like TS, know how to harden systems and deploy preventative measures beforehand. And while open forum online communities help TS and other security professionals “understand the mind of a hacker” there is always a level of uncertainty he has to deal with.

“Hackers are attacking constantly and finding new ways to infiltrate networks,” said TS. “We have to stay as close to them as possible,” he adds.

While TS’ professional journey has been unconventional at best, he has noticed many lessons from his baseball career that have translated into the cyber arena.

“Teamwork is huge; I learned early on in baseball that every teammate receives things differently. You have to take the time and care enough to figure out how your team members communicate. [In cyber security], everyone communicates differently too. Both in receiving communication and externally communicating. Step one is always getting a feel for that in order to be as effective as possible when communicating with teammates/team members.”

Likewise, TS learned that in baseball, a player’s own skill level and performance weren’t the sole indicator of how “good” a teammate was. The greatest measure, he says, is how effective one is at making others better and serving them.

“To be good at and handle your job is one thing but whenever you have a team involved, the greatest measure of a player or cyber employee is the capability to lift up those around them and make them better,” he advises. Empowering teammates, teaching them, and learning from them is the approach he lives by at Circadence.

We are proud to have TS as part of the Circadence family and know while he’s not hitting balls out of the park at the stadium, he’s hitting home runs with Circadence, hardening its cyber security posture.

Photo by Joey Kyber on Unsplash

Living Our Mission Blog Series: Building Hyper-Scalable Cyber Training Experiences with Randy Thornton, Enterprise Architect at Circadence

A newly minted Engineering Fellow, Randy Thornton has dedicated his craft to software development for over 30 years. His passion for learning and using new technologies is evident in Circadence’s cyber range platform, Project AresÒ.

Randy joined Circadence in 2005 when the company was selling its WAN Optimization product, MVOÔ. His background in scientific computing software for CAD/CAM, telecom, and seismology have all been brought to bear to transform Project Ares from a mere cool idea that met unique market demands, to now, a full-fidelity, hyper-scalable range training tool for cyber security professionals used worldwide.

Randy and Circadence: Then and Now

In the beginning, there were about four Circadence employees working on the Project Ares prototype, which was eventually adopted by government and military agencies who were looking for better ways to train their cyber operators. Fast forward to today, Randy is leading the Project Ares team to redesign the architecture to scale within Microsoft Azure.  The goal is to provide private sector enterprises the same cutting-edge opportunity to train their cyber teams of any size and location on a gamified range—persistently, authentically, with flexibility and relevant to their specific cyber readiness needs. And Randy has been there through it all!

Today Randy mentors the engineering team at Circadence and helps them identify and collate standards around how the company’s products’ code is written and tested. He also helps identify what technologies to use and evaluates the technical feasibility of using new tech in the products themselves.

“Researching and learning new technology and staying on the cutting-edge is one of the most exciting parts of my job,” said Randy. “I see so much potential for Project Ares…so much promise…and being able to build out complicated networks in the cloud is a welcomed challenge for me.” he added.

Fellow Designation Reflected in Technical Capabilities within Project Ares

Randy’s contributions have been celebrated with a promotion to an Engineering Fellow, a significant career milestone that honors his achievements, expertise, and technical leadership to Project Ares, Circadence, and the cyber security industry as a whole.  The well-deserved recognition clearly stems from the fact that Randy never stops learning! He recently completed his Azure architecture certification exam, which helps him contribute to transitioning Project Ares to run on Microsoft Azure intelligent cloud.

“Project Ares’ ability to scale across regions is even more prevalent now thanks to Microsoft Azure,” said Randy. “The usability, the functionality, and its capability to connect across multiple locations and look like one single installation will be very beneficial to enterprise and government entities looking to scale their cyber training efforts effectively.”

A professional motto that drives Randy’s belief in continuous innovation in Project Ares is “Every time we change code, we should improve it.” It is this technical philosophy that has kept Randy and the Circadence engineering team on their toes and moving at pace to meeting market demands for scalable cyber training experiences.

Evolving Cyber Training to Scale for Customers

Randy’s current project lies in Project Ares.Next, an evolution of Project Ares from an on-premise application to a true cloud native SaaS platform that fully exploits the advantages of the cloud computing model.  Many of the cloud native improvements for Project Ares will be “under the covers”.  But customers will see performance improvements in mission virtual machines and new cyber curriculum will be able to be added to the platform more expeditiously. Project Ares users who want to train their teams from anywhere in the world will be able to do so persistently, without compromising user experience and impacting mission load times, etc.

As Project Ares evolves, we start to adapt to Go and Google standards and Kubernetes standards,” said Randy. “We’ve been working closely with Microsoft engineering teams on how we use the Azure Cloud most effectively and efficiently,” he adds.

The work of Randy and his teams is technical in nature and we greatly appreciate the level of knowledge and expertise they have to ensure Project Ares stays on the cusp of cyber training market demands using the latest technology to automate and augment the cyber workforces of tomorrow. We are grateful for their work to make Project Ares better every day as they use their talents to inform what our customers experience in the platform.

Learn Project Ares, including recent mission and battle room updates!

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

Living our Mission: Creating Authentic Cyber Training and Learning Environments Inspired by Real-World Experience: Todd Humes, Sr. Mission Designer

Bringing his Air Force and military security engineering background to use, Senior Mission Designer Todd Humes understands what it takes to defend networks from adversaries. Prior to Circadence, he served in various government security roles including as a Systems Security Engineer and Systems Administrator and on the commercial side as a Director of Network Defense Operations at a Managed Security Service Provider. He noticed a gap in commercial cyber training and readiness that eventually lead him to Circadence.  

In his current role, Todd ensures that real-world training exercises developed meet critical training objectives and are authentic for the end-user. “We want to provide a safe place for trainees to learn cyber…so he/she doesn’t have to worry about causing damage on actual networks when trying to build skills,” he says.  

It’s important trainees in Project Ares experience true-to-life cyber threat scenarios that they would in their actual workplace.

In “mimicking a controlled environment that they would see” in the workplace, trainees gain “an experience that is highly relatable and allows for professional development,” Todd says.  

When developing new missions Todd and his team examine market verticals and threats associated with those industries to identify unique scenarios that can be built out in a Project Ares mission. “We do our own research and threat intelligence targeting verticals, brainstorm specific scenarios and begin designing what the network environment should look like,” he says. The automation and orchestration of how the mission will unfold require a great deal of programming. Between building the mission components, the layout, and the services that will be “affected” in the exercise, Todd and his team bring cyber threats to life in the most authentic way possible. Sometimes, he adds, “we have to reverse engineer the malware [for example] to get the capability we want,” adding layers of complexity and back-end work to produce the final product.  

But the intricacies of building missions is anything but dull. “It’s never boring! We’re always learning day in and day out and the people who are successful in this field are the individuals who continue to learn themselves,” Todd says.

To ensure missions stay relevant against today’s threats, Todd is always keeping a pulse on the latest research and vulnerabilities by studying online reports and attending cyber conferences and industry-related events to network with like-minded leaders.  

He believes by continuously learning about the industry, all professionals in this line of work and beyond can find new and better ways to address an exploit and stay one (or several) steps ahead of hackers. He considers cyber security one the few industries and specializations that requires persistent learning and skill building in order to “extend the life” of security across organizations and companies.   

Learn Project Ares, including recent mission and battle room updates here.   

When cyber security meets machine learning

What happens when cyber security and machine learning work together? The results are pretty positive. Many technologies are leveraging machine learning in cyber security functions nowadays in order to automate and augment their cyber workforce. How? Most recently in training and skill building.

Machine learning helps emulate human cognition (e.g. learning based on experiences and patterns rather than inference) so autonomous agents in a cyber security system for instance, can “teach themselves” how to build models for pattern recognition—while engaging with real human cyber professionals.

Machine learning as a training support system

Machine learning becomes particularly valuable in cyber security training for professionals when it can support human activities like malware detection, incident response, network analysis, and more. One way machine learning shows up is in our gamified cyber learning platform Project Ares, under our AI-advisor “Athena” who generates responses to player’s queries when they get stuck on an activity and/or need hints to progress through a problem.

Athena generates a response from its learning corpus, using machine learning to aggregate and correlate all player conversations it has, while integrating knowledge about each player in the platform to recommend the most efficient path to solving a problem. It’s like modeling the “two heads are better than one” saying, but with a lot more “heads” at play.

Machine learning as an autonomous adversary

Likewise, machine learning models provide a general mechanism for organization-tailored obscuring of malicious intent during professional training—enabling adversaries to disguise their network traffic or on-system behavior to look more typical to evade detection. Machine learning’s ability to continually model and adapt enables the technology to persist undetected for longer (if it is acting as an autonomous agent against a trainee in our platform). This act challenges the trainee in the platform in a good way, so they begin to think like an adversary and understand their response to defensive behavior.

Machine learning supports cyber skills building

Companies like Uber use machine learning to understand the various routes a driver takes to transport people from point A to point B. It uses data collected to recommend the most efficient route to its destination.

It increases the learning potential for professionals looking to hone their cyber skills and competencies using machine learning.

Now imagine that concept applied to cyber training in a way that can both help cyber pros through cyber activities while also activating a trainee’s cognitive functions in ways we previously could not with traditional, off-site courses.

Machine learning abilities can analyze user behavior for both fraud detection and malicious network activity. It can aggregate and enrich data from multiple sources, act as virtual assistants with specialized knowledge, and augment cyber operators’ daily tasks. It’s powerful stuff!

To learn more about machine learning and AI in cyber training, download our white paper “Upskilling Cyber Teams with Artificial Intelligence and Gamified Learning.”

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How Cyber Security Can Be Improved

Every day we get more interconnected and that naturally widens the threat surface for cybercriminals. In order to protect vulnerabilities and keep pace with hacker methods, security – and non-security professionals must understand how to protect themselves (and their companies). And that involves looking for new ways to improve cyber security. To start, we believe cyber security can be improved by focusing on three areas: enterprise-wide cyber awareness programs, within cyber teams via persistent training, and in communication between the C-suite and the CISO. Check out our recommendations below and if you have a strategy that worked to improve cyber security in your company or organization, we’d love to hear about it.

Company-Wide Security Awareness Programs

Regardless of company size or budget, every person employed at a business should understand fundamental cyber concepts so they can protect themselves from malicious hackers. Failure to do so places the employee and the company at risk of being attacked and could result in significant monetary and reputation damages.

Simple knowledge of what a phishing email looks like, what an unsecured website looks like, and implications of sharing personal information on social media are all topics that can be addressed in a company-wide security program. Further, staff should understand how hackers work and what kinds of tactics they use to get information on a victim to exploit. Reports vary but a most recent article from ThreatPost notes that phishing attempts have doubled in 2018 with new scams on the rise every day.

But where and how should companies start building a security awareness program—not to mention a program that staff will actually take seriously and participate in?

We believe in the power of gamified learning to engage employees in cyber security best practices.

Our mobile app inCyt helps novice and non-technical professionals learn the ins and outs of cyber security from hacking methods to understanding cyber definitions. The game allows employees to play against one another in a healthy, yet competitive, manner. Players have digital “hackables” they have to protect in the game while trying to steal other player’s assets for vulnerabilities to exploit. The back and forth game play teaches learners how and why attacks occur in the first place and where vulnerabilities exist on a variety of digital networks.

By making the learning fun, it shifts the preconceived attitude of “have to do” to “want to do.” When an employee learns the fundamentals of cyber security not only are they empowering themselves to protect their own data, which translates into improved personal data cyber hygiene, but it also adds value for them as professionals. Companies are more confident when employees work with vigilance and security at the forefront.

Benefits of company-wide security awareness training

  • Lowers risk – Prevents an internal employee cyber mishap with proper education and training to inform daily activities.
  • Strengthens workforce – Existing security protocols are hardened to keep the entire staff aware of daily vulnerabilities and prevention.
  • Improved practices – Cultivate good cyber hygiene by growing cyber aptitude in a safe, virtual environment, instead of trial and error on workplace networks.

For more information about company-wide cyber learning, read about our award-winning mobile app inCyt.

Persistent (Not Periodic) Cyber Training

For cyber security professionals like network analysts, IT directors, CISOs, and incident responders, knowledge of the latest hacker methods and ways to protect and defend, govern, and mitigate threats is key. Today’s periodic training conducted at off-site training courses has and continues to be the option of choice—but the financial costs and time away from the frontlines makes it a less-than-fruitful ROI for leaders looking to harden their posture productively and efficiently.

Further, periodic cyber security training classes are often dull, static, PowerPoint-driven or prescriptive, step-by-step instructor-driven—meaning the material is often too outdates to be relevant to today’s threats—and the learning is passive. There’s minimal opportunity for hands-on learning to apply learned concepts in a virtualized, safe setting. These roadblocks make periodic learning ineffective and unfortunately companies are spending thousands of dollars every quarter or month to upskill professionals without knowing if it’s money well spent. That’s frustrating!

What if companies could track cyber team performance to identify gaps in security skills—and do so on emulated networks to enrich the learning experience?

We believe persistent training on a cyber range is the modern response for companies to better align with today’s evolving threats. Cyber ranges allow cyber teams to engage in skill building in a “safe” environment. Sophisticated ranges should be able to scale as companies grow in security posture too. Our Project Ares cyber learning platform helps professionals develop frontier learning capabilities on mirrored networks for a more authentic training experience. Running on Microsoft Azure, enterprise, government and academic IT teams can persistently training on their own networks safely using their own tools to “train as they would fight.”

Browser-based, Project Ares also allows professionals to train on their terms – wherever they are. Artificial intelligence via natural language processing and machine learning support players on the platform by acting as both automated adversaries to challenge trainees in skill, and as an in-game advisor to support trainee progression through a cyber exercise.

The gamified element of cyber training keeps professionals engaged while building skill. Digital badges, leaderboards, levels, and team-based mission scenarios build communicative skills, technical skills, and increase information retention in this active-learning model of training.

Benefits of persistent cyber training

Gamifying cyber training is the next evolution of learning for professionals who are either already in the field or curious to start a career in cyber security. The benefits are noteworthy:

  • Increased engagement, sense of control and self-efficacy
  • Adoption of new initiatives
  • Increased satisfaction with internal communication
  • Development of personal and organizational capabilities and resources
  • Increased personal satisfaction and employee retention
  • Enhanced productivity, monitoring and decision making

For more information about gamified cyber training, read about our award-winning platform Project Ares.

CISO Involvement in C-Suite Decision-Making

Communication processes between the C-suite and CISO need to be more transparent and frequent to achieve better alignment between cyber risk and business risk.

Many CISOs are currently challenged in reporting to the C-suite because of the very technical nature and reputation of cyber security. It’s often perceived as “too technical” for laymen, non-cyber professionals. However, it doesn’t have to be that way.

C-suite execs can understand their business’ cyber risks in the context of business risk to see how the two are inter-related and impact each other.

A CISO is typically concerned about the security of the business as a whole and if a breach occurs at the sake of a new product launch, service addition, or employee productivity, it’s his or her reputation on the line.

The CISO perspective is, if ever a company is deploying a new product or service, security should be involved from the get-go. Having CISOs brought into discussions about business initiatives early on is key to ensuring there are not security “add ons” brought in too late in the game. Also, actualizing the cost of a breach on the company in terms of dollar amounts can also capture the attention of the C-suite.

Furthermore, CISOs are measuring risk severity and breaking it down for the C-suite to help them understand the business value of cyber.  To achieve this alignment, CISOs are finding unique ways to do remediation or cyber security monitoring to reduce their workloads enough so they can prioritize communications with execs and keep all facets of the company safe from the employees it employs to the technologies it adopts to function.

Improving Cyber Security for the Future

Better communications between execs and security leaders, continual cyber training for teams, and company-wide cyber learning are a few suggestions we’ve talked about today to help companies reduce their cyber risk and harden their posture. We’ve said it before and we will say it again: cyber security is everyone’s responsibility. And evolving threats in the age of digital transformation mean that we are always susceptible to attacks regardless of how many firewalls we put up or encryption codes we embed.

If we have a computer, a phone, an electronic device that can exchange information in some way to other parties, we are vulnerable to cyber attacks. Every bit and byte of information exchanged on a company network is up for grabs for hackers and the more technical, business, and non-technical professionals come together to educate and empower themselves to improve cyber hygiene practices, the more prepared they and their company assets will be when a hacker comes knocking on their digital door.

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Living our Mission Blog Series #3: New Learning Curriculum in Project Ares 3.6.4

We’ve made several new updates to our gamified cyber learning platform Project Ares. We are releasing new battle room and mission cyber security exercises for professionals to continue training and honing skills and competency and have optimized some aspects of performance to make the learning experience smoother.

New Missions and Battle Rooms

To ensure professionals have access to the latest threats to train against, we develop new missions and battle rooms for our users so they can continually learn new cyber security skills, both technical and professional. The following new missions are available to users of the Professional and Enterprise licenses of Project Ares; while the new battle rooms updates are available to users of the Academy, Professional, and Enterprise licenses of Project Ares.

Mission 5 – Operation Wounded Bear

Designed to feature cyber security protection for financial institutions, the learning objectives for this mission are to identify and remove malware responsible for identity theft and protect the network from further infections. Variability in play within the mission includes method of exfiltration, malicious DNS and IP addresses, infected machines, data collection with file share uploads that vary, method of payload and persistence, and a mix of Windows and Linux.

This mission provides practical application of the following skill sets:

  • Computer languages
  • Computer network defense
  • Information systems
  • Information security
  • Command line interface
  • Cyber defense analysis
  • Network and O/S hardening techniques
  • Signature development, implementation and impact
  • Incident response

Mission Objectives:

  1. Use IDS/IPS to alert on initial malware infection vectors
  2. Alert/prevent download of malicious executables
  3. Create alert for infections
  4. Kill malware processes and remove malware from the initially infected machine
  5. Kill other instances of malware processes and remove from machines
  6. Prevent further infection

Mission 6 – Operation Angry Tiger

Using threat vectors similar to the Saudi Arabia Aramco and Doha RasGas cyber attacks, this mission is about responding to phishing and exfiltration attacks.  Cyber defenders conduct a risk assessment of a company’s existing network structure and its cyber risk posture for possible phishing attacks. Tasks include reviewing all detectable weaknesses to ensure no malicious activity is occurring on the network currently. Variability in play within the mission includes the method of phishing in email and payload injection, the alert generated, the persistence location and lateral movement specifics, and the malicious DNS and IP addresses.

Core competencies used in the mission:

  • Incident response team processes
  • Windows and *nix systems administration (Active Directory, Group Policy, Email)
  • Network monitoring (Snort, Bro, Sguil)

Mission Objectives:

  1. Verify network monitoring tools are functioning
  2. Examine current email policies for risk
  3. Examine domain group/user policies for risk
  4. Verify indicator of compromise (IOC)
  5. Find and kill malicious process
  6. Remove all artifacts of infection
  7. Stop exfiltration of corporate data

Mission 13 – Operation Black Dragon

Defending the power grid is a prevailing concern today and Mission 13 focuses on cyber security techniques for Industry Control Systems and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition systems (ICS/SCADA).  Players conduct a cyber defense assessment mission on a power distribution plant. The end state of the assessment will be a defensible power grid with local defender ability to detect attempts to compromise the grid as well as the ability to attribute any attacks and respond accordingly.

Core competencies used in the mission:

  •  Risk Management
  • Incident Response Management
  • Information Systems and Network Security
  • Vulnerability Assessment
  • Hacking Methodologies

Mission Objectives:

  1. Evaluate risks to the plant
  2. Determine if there are any indicators of compromise to the network
  3. Improve monitoring of network behavior
  4. Mitigate an attack if necessary

Battle Room 8 – Network Analysis Using Packet Capture (PCAP)

Battle Room 8 delivers new exercises to teach network forensic investigation skills via analysis of a PCAP. Analyze the file to answer objectives related to topics such as origins of C2 traffic, identification of credentials in the clear, sensitive document exfiltration, and database activity using a Kali image with multiple network analysis tools installed.

Core competencies used in the mission:

  • Intrusion Detection Basics
  • Packet Capture Analysis

Battle Room 10 – Scripting Fundamentals

Scripting is a critical cyber security operator skillset for any team. Previously announced and now available, Battle Room 10 is the first Project Ares exercise focus on this key skill.  The player conducts a series of regimented tasks using the Python language in order to become more familiar with fundamental programming concepts. This battle room is geared towards players looking to develop basic programming and scripting skills, such as:

  • Functions
  • Classes and Objects
  • File Manipulation
  • Exception Handling
  • User Input
  • Data Structures
  • Conditional Statements
  • Loops
  • Variables
  • Numbers & Operators
  • Casting
  • String Manipulation

Core competency used in the mission:

  • Basic knowledge of programming concepts

Game client performance optimizations

We made several adjustments to improve the performance of Project Ares and ensure a smooth player experience throughout the platform.

  • The application size has been reduced by optimizing the texture, font, and 3D assets. This will improve the load time for the game client application.
  • 3D assets were optimized to minimize CPU and GPU loads to make the game client run smoother; especially on lower performance computers.
  • The game client frame rate can now be capped to a lower rate (i.e. 15fps) to lower CPU utilization for very resource constrained client computers.

These features are part of the Project Ares version 3.6.4 on the Azure cloud which is available now. Similar updates in Project Ares version 3.6.5 for vCenter servers will be available shortly.