Real World Cyber Security Experience: From Learning to Earning

Real world, experiential learning helps students develop knowledge, skills, and abilities that they can take directly from the classroom to the workplace.

This direct connection from learning to earning is important to all students, but none more so than adult learners who have gone back to school, often while continuing to work full-time. Maybe their goal is to grow in their current job role or career. Maybe they are ramping up for a job or career change. Maybe they are exploring new interests. Regardless of motivation, after juggling the many demands of working while going to school, most adult learners expect to graduate with skills that they can immediately apply in the workforce or other direct activity.

To say that the cyber security industry is seeking skilled job candidates is an understatement.  Cybersecurity Ventures predicts that there will be 3.5 million (that’s million) unfilled cybersecurity jobs globally by 2021.   The interactive Cyber Seek website shows over 500,000 U.S. cybersecurity job openings as I write.  With gaps of this magnitude between open jobs and applicants, cyber security is a perfect discipline for educators to focus on and provide experiential learning that students can directly apply outside the classroom.

Capella University, an online university headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, recently did just that by adding a hands-on lab component to the capstone course for its BS in Information Technology, Information Assurance and Cybersecurity program.  One of their over-arching design goals was to make the course as close as possible to the “real world” of cyber security work. We are proud that they chose Project Ares by Circadence to deliver this critical element.

In a recent Circadence webinar, Dr. James W. Barker, Adjunct Faculty in the School of Business and Technology spoke in detail about the process the team at Capella went through to integrate Project Ares into their capstone course.  Project Ares enabled them to address three objectives:

  1. Give students hands-on practice using their cyber skills against a variable adversary
  2. Provide authentic learning scenarios that students could report on to demonstrate their knowledge of the attack and recommendations for future prevention
  3. Create an opportunity for teamwork and collaborative problem solving, which are essential skill requirements for cyber teams and hiring managers

“By the end of the second week of the course,” said Dr. Barker, “almost to an individual, students stated that this is the most realistic, engaging, and challenging course that they have taken.  One group was so engaged and motivated by working on the Project Ares platform that they completed their final group mission two weeks early.”

From his faculty point of view, Dr. Barker is pleased that Capella has delivered the equivalent of a formal cyber security internship and cannot envision a better means of exposing their learners to “real world” security work.  And Capella isn’t stopping here; they are considering plans to incorporate Project Ares learning exercises into other courses at the undergraduate and graduate level.

Check out the webinar where Dr. Barker shares more about how he set up the course syllabus and learn more about the power of Project Ares as an on-demand and hands-on learning platform ​that uses cyber range-as-a-service technology to deliver Virtual Machine-based cyber security training exercises.

 

Photo Credit: Thanks to Joshua Ness for sharing their work on Unsplash.

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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Living Our Mission: Building a Roadmap to Bring Product Vision to Reality with Circadence’s Raj Kutty

This installment of the “Living our Mission” blog series features Circadence’s Rajani “Raj” Kutty, Senior Product Manager.  

Raj is fascinated by technology’s evolution in the marketplace and that interest has informed her career path toward success. She achieved her masters degree in computer science from University of Pennsylvania in 2003. From there, she spent 15-16 years in the tech industry and has always been interested in the everchanging advancements in technology. Her tech background consists of Java programming, business analysis and product management. In the beginning of her career, she worked on mobile app designs, web app development, and programming for various industries including finance, insurance, retail, and more. For the last 10 years, she’s moved into the direction of product management. Her shift into this area began because she enjoys building a roadmap for product development and seeing it through the various stages from identifying a problem in the market, and creating a product that solves pain points for customers. Her experience working with many different industries provides an advantage to Circadence since she has a first-hand understanding of why these businesses can benefit from additional cyber security training to protect company assets.

Raj started at Circadence about 7 months ago and was immediately captivated by the concept of cyber readiness and the security industry as a whole. Throughout her profession, she noticed a growing issue many companies faced: a lack of cyber security awareness and training. Over the years, she heard a lot about the cyber workforce shortage and knew the first step to creating a solution for this problem was to get the user engaged with the right type of training. In her mind, if the user is engaged in training, then it would result in better cyber defense for the organization. Her previous work experience, thoughts about cyber security readiness and ideas around engaged training were validated when she heard what Circadence was doing to help companies be “cyber ready” using gamified learning platforms. In the past, training would consist of a video, classroom lecture or reading textbooks- something dry and boring, she said. Raj felt Circadence offered a unique solution to get people interested in cyber security, which could lead to more strategic cyber defense performance and possibly minimize the cyber workforce gap.

“Training has to be fun and interesting to the user, while still being effective. I feel like Circadence is offering this to the cyber workforce in a game-play mode, which is more engaging for the user.”

Day to day, Raj works with different departments and team members at Circadence developing product strategy and bringing a product roadmap to life. Her knowledge across many industries helps ensure our products meet the needs of different organizations, while still maintaining in-depth cyber training and ease-of-use for the customer. Much like planning a road trip, which requires knowledge of route to destination, Raj leads her team every day by investigating and communicating strategy and plans to determine where they need to go next to bring the product to market.

Her main focus over the last couple months has been a new portal Circadence is developing called CyberBridge. CyberBridge is the entry point at which users can access all Circadence cyber learning platforms including Project Ares®, inCyt®, Orion® and more. It’s a global SaaS platform that offers different types of cyber training content for different markets.

“I love that I get to help design a product that addresses the cyber challenges across different industries and the ability to provide a readiness solution pertinent to each sector’s security pain points.”

The products Raj helps map to market fulfills her goal of bringing much-needed cyber awareness and training solutions to everyone and every business. Her perspective: With every tech integration, Bluetooth connection, and device-to-device communication we implement to make our working lives easier, we inherently increase our cyber risk as our attack surface widens. There are no signs of a slowing tech usage, hence why the importance of cyber awareness continues to grow each day. When we talk about how businesses need to protect themselves, we’re really talking about the people of a business, since people are what make up a company. In today’s world of escalating cyber threats, it’s everyone’s responsibly to gain cyber awareness to protect a company.

“Cybersecurity is like community immunity, when everyone gets vaccinated, we are improving and protecting our greater community, and cyber security works the same way.”

Photo by John Lockwood on Unsplash

Photo by Bogdan Karlenko 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.

Why Alternatives to Traditional Cyber Training Are Needed Immediately

Are you looking for a more effective, cost-conscious cyber training tool that actually teaches competencies and cyber skills? We’ve been there. Let us share our perspective on the top cyber training alternatives to complement or supplement your organization’s current training efforts.

Cyber training has evolved over the years but not at pace with the rapid persistence of cybercrime. Cyberattacks impact businesses of all sizes and it’s only a matter of time before your business is next in line. Traditional cyber training has been comprised of individuals sitting in a classroom environment, off-site, reading static materials, listening to lectures, and if you’re lucky, performing step-by-step, prescriptive tasks to “upskill” and “learn.” Unfortunately, this model isn’t working anymore. Learners are not retaining concepts and are disengaged from the learning process. This means by the time they make it back to your company to defend your networks, they’ve likely forgotten most of the new concepts that you sent them to learn about in the first place. Read more on the disadvantages of passive cyber training here.

So, what cyber training alternatives are available for building competency and skill among professionals? More importantly, why do you need a better way to train professionals? We hope this blog helps answer these questions.

Cyber Range Training

Cyber ranges provide trainees with simulated (highly scalable, small number of servers) or emulated (high fidelity testing using real computers, OS, and application) environments to practice skills such as defending networks, hardening critical infrastructure (ICS/SCADA) and responding to attacks. They simulate realistic technical settings for professionals to practice network configurations and detect abnormalities and anomalies in computer systems. While simulated ranges are considered more affordable than emulated ranges, several academic papers question whether test results from a simulation reflect a cyber pro’s workplace reality.

Traditional Cyber Security Training

Courses can be taken in a classroom setting from certified instructors (like a SANS course), self-paced over the Internet, or in mentored settings in cities around the world. Several organizations offer online classes too, for professionals looking to hone their skills in their specific work role (e.g. incident response analyst, ethical hacker). Online or in-classroom training environments are almost exclusively built to cater to offensive-type cyber security practices and are highly prescriptive when it comes to the learning and the process for submitting “answers”/ scoring.

However, as cyber security proves to be largely a “learn by doing” skillset, where outside-of-the-box thinking, real-world, high fidelity virtual environments, and on-going training are crucially important, attendees of traditional course trainings are often left searching for more cross-disciplined opportunities to hone their craft over the long term. Nevertheless, online trainings prove a good first step for professionals who want foundational learnings from which they can build upon with more sophisticated tools and technologies.

Gamified, Cyber Range, Cloud-Based Training

It wouldn’t be our blog if we didn’t mention Project Ares as a recommended, next generation alternative to traditional cyber training for professionals because it uses gamified backstories to engage learners in activities.  And, it combines the benefits and convenience of online, cyber range training with the power of AI and machine learning to automate and augment trainee’s cyber competencies.

Our goal is to create a learning experience that is engaging, immersive, fun, and challenges trainee thinking in ways most authentic to cyber scenarios they’d experience in their actual jobs.

Project Ares was built with an active-learning approach to teaching, which studies show increase information retention among learners to 75% compared to passive-learning models.

Check out the comparison table below for details on the differences between traditional training models and what Project Ares delivers.

Traditional Training
(classroom and online delivery of lectured based material)
Project Ares
(immersive environment for hands on, experiential learning)
Curriculum Design

  • Instructors are generally experts in their field and exceptional classroom facilitators.
  • Often hired to develop a specific course.
  • It can take up to a year to build a course and it might be used for as long as 5 years, with updates.
  • Instructors are challenged to keep pace with evolving threats and to update course material frequently enough to reflect today’s attack surface in real time.
  • It is taught the same way every time.
Curriculum Design

  • Cyber subject matter experts partner with instructional design specialists to reengineer real-world threat scenarios into immersive, learning-based exercises.
  • An in-game advisor serves as a resource for players to guide them through activities, minimizing the need for physical instructors and subsequent overhead.
  • Project Ares is drawn from real-world threats and attacks, so content is always relevant and updated to meet user’s needs.
Learning Delivery

  • Courses are often concept-specific going deep on a narrow subject. And it can take multiple courses to cover a whole subject area.
  • Students take the whole course or watch the whole video – for example, if a student knows 70%, they sit through that to get to the 30% that is new to them.
  • On Demand materials are available for reference (sometimes for an additional fee) and are helpful for review of complex concepts.   But this does not help student put the concepts into practice.
  • Most courses teach offensive concepts….from the viewpoint that it is easier to teach how to break the network and then assumes that students will figure out how to ‘re-engineer’ defense. This approach can build a deep foundational understanding of concepts but it is not tempered by practical ‘application’ until students are back home facing real defensive challenges.
Learning  Delivery

  • Wherever a user is in his/her cyber security career path, Project Ares meets them at their level and provides a curriculum pathway.
  • From skills to strategy:   Students / Players can use the Project Ares platform to refresh skills, learn new skills, test their capabilities on their own and, most critically, collaborate with teammates to combine techniques and critical thinking to successfully reach the end of a mission.
  • It takes a village to defend a network, sensitive data, executive leaders, finances, and an enterprises reputation:  This approach teaches and enables experience of the many and multiple skills and job roles that come together in the real-world to detect and respond to threats and attacks….
  • Project Ares creates challenging environments that demand the kind of problem solving and strategic thinking necessary to create an effective and evolving defensive posture
  • Project Ares Battle Rooms and Missions present real-world problems that need to be solved, not just answered. It is a higher-level learning approach.

If you want to learn more about Project Ares and how it stacks up to other training options out there, watch our on-demand webinar “Get Gamified: Why Cyber Learning Happens Better With Games” featuring our VP of Global Partnerships, Keenan Skelly.

  You can also contact our experts at info@circadence.com or schedule a demo to see it in action!

Photo by Helloquence 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: Learning is Built into Project Ares, Thanks to Victoria Bowen, Instructional Designer at Circadence

Victoria Bowen has worked in the instructional design field for about 35 years – primarily developing e-learning with a smattering of web development, SharePoint development, and Learning Management System administration. She holds an undergrad degree is in psychology, a master’s in special education, and doctorate in curriculum, instruction, and supervision with emphasis on instructional design.  What that means is that she knows how people learn and what aids and interferes with learning in training products. Victoria worked an IT security services company and then transitioned to a training role with the Air Force’s Cyberspace Vulnerability Assessment/Hunter (CVAH) weapon system. “I was responsible for the training database and the app store for several versions of CVAH.  I also developed user guides and training materials,” she said. Victoria served in that role for about nine months before joining the Circadence team.

Since September 2013, Victoria’s main job as an instructional designer has been to analyze training needs for Circadence products. She helps assess target audiences for Circadence products to determine learning goals and objectives for the product designers. She establishes the behaviors that a user would be assessed against, after engaging with the product, to ensure learning has occurred. Victoria also suggests ways to evaluate those behaviors to optimize product utility. In doing so, she prepares training outlines and documentation and writes content development processes and learning paths. Mapping Job Qualification Requirements (JQRs) tasks to training tasks is a regular function of Victoria’s job alongside mapping National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) standards to training tasks. She ensures the core skills addressed in our curriculum creation tool Orion™ align to defined NIST standards.

Applying instructional design theory to new technology

What keeps Victoria returning to her desk every day is the challenge of learning and applying instructional design theory to cutting edge training technology. Although the old rules still apply, Circadence is leading the way in developing new rules and research on how learning happens and best practices for simulations like Project Ares®. We know a lot about constructivism as an underlying theory, but to apply it gaming environments like Project Ares is new and fascinating,” she says.

The challenge of applying theory to technology is complicated by the fact that new books about instructional design and cognitive analysis and processing are published frequently. And there are new online articles every month. Also, there is a growing emphasis on instructional analysis before beginning training development projects, so there is a growing emphasis on analytical skills for instructional designers. These skills help us design the right training, just enough training, and just in time training for learners.

“Ensuring we are constructing an environment in which the player is constantly learning, not just performing a task or activity is essential.  We need the player to understand the what, when, how, and why related to the tasks they perform in the environment.  For deeper learner and better retrieval from long term memory, we also need the player to understand how their tasks relate to each other.” Victoria says. “Furthermore,” she adds, “we want the player’s understanding and performance to progress from novice to intermediate to expert. That doesn’t happen just by repetition. There must be instruction too.”

Instructional design within Project Ares

For the Project Ares Battle Rooms and Missions, Victoria collaborates with cyber security subject matter experts to write the learning objectives and assessment criteria, provide role-based learning content outlines, identify gaps and redundancies in content, and review product design to ensure high quality instructional design aspects. For inCyt™, she’s written the scripts for several of the cyber security lessons. Finally, Victoria also reviews and identifies instructional design issues such as scrolling text and text display not controlled by the user, “both of which interfere with cognitive processing by the user and adversely affect transfer from short term to long term memory,” she adds.

“I have a different challenge every day and I like challenges. I’m also fascinated by cyber security and enjoy learning more about it every day. Instructional research has consistently supported that interactivity is the most important component of instruction regardless of delivery method. We have a very interactive environment and that’s great for retention and transfer of learning to real world application.”

Victoria’s passion for intelligent learning systems dates back to her time in school. “When I was a poor graduate student at the University of Georgia, I paid around $25 a month in overdue fees to the library so I could keep the AI books I checked out longer. (Once they were turned in, professors usually got them and could keep them up to a year.) There were only about 25 books on that topic at the time. Today, it is remarkable to see what our AI team can do with Athena.”

Why persistent cyber training matters

The cyber world is changing very fast. People need to learn constantly to keep up with their job requirements. Cyber challenges are not about cookie cutter solutions. It’s important that the cyber operator learns cyber problem solving, not just cyber solutions. By jumping into a training program and being able to craft different approaches to solving problems and test those approaches, the cyber professional can learn skills that directly help them do better on the job. Plus – a big plus – the training is fun!

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.   

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.

Photo of computer by rawpixel.com from Pexels

Ransomware – The Attack Du Jour!

Ransomware is gaining traction among hackers; emboldened by financial success and anonymity using cryptocurrencies. In fact, ransomware is now considered a tried and true cyberattack technique, with attacks spreading among small and medium-sized businesses, cities and county governments. Coveware’s recent 2019 Q1 Ransomware Report notes:

  • Ransoms have increased by an average of 89% over Q1 in 2019 to $12,762 per ransom request
  • Average downtime after a ransomware attack has increased to 7.3 days, up from 6.2 days in Q4 of 2018, with estimated downtime costs averaging $65,645
  • Victim company size so far in 2019 is anywhere from 28 to 254 employees (small, medium, and large-sized businesses)

Let’s review how ransomware works and why it’s so effective. Ransomware is a type of cyberattack where an unauthorized user gains access to an organization’s files or systems and blocks user access, holding the company’s data hostage until the victim pays a ransom in exchange for a decryption key. As you can surmise, the goal of such an attack is to extort businesses for financial gain.

Ransomware can “get into” a system in different ways, one of the most common through phishing emails or social media where the human worker inadvertently opens a message, attachment, or link acting as a door to the network or system.  Messages that are urgent and appear to come from a supervisor, accounts payable professional, or perceived “friends” on social media are all likely ransomware actors disguising themselves to manipulate or socially engineer the human.

Near and Far: Ransomware Has No Limits

Many types of ransomware have affected small and medium-sized businesses over the last two decades but it shows no limitations in geography, frequency, type, or company target size.

  • Norwegian aluminum manufacturing company Norsk Hydro, a significant provider of hydroelectric power in the Nordic region, was shut down because of a ransomware infection. The company’s aluminum plants were forced into manual operations and the costs are already projected to reach $40 million (and growing). The ransomware name: LockerGoga. It has crippled industrial firms across the globe from French engineering firm Altran, and manufacturing companies Momentive, and Hexion, according to a report from Wired.
  • What was perceived as an unplanned system reboot at Maersk, a Danish shipping conglomerate, turned out to be a corrupt attack that impacted one-fifth of the entire world’s shipping capacity. Deemed the “most devastating cyberattack in history,” NotPetya created More than $10 billion in damages. To add insult to injury, the cyber risk insurance company for Maersk denied their claim on the grounds that the NotPetya attack was a result of cyberwar (citing an act of war exclusionary clause).  WannaCry was also released in 2017 and generated between $4 billion and $8 billion in damages but nothing (yet) has come close to NotPetya.
  • On Black Friday 2016, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency fell victim to a ransomware attack. The attacker demanded $73,000 for services to be restored. Fortunately, speedy response and backup processes helped the company restore systems in 2 days—avoiding having to pay the ransom. In March 2018, the City of Atlanta experienced a ransomware attack that cost upwards of $17 million in damages. The Colorado Department of Transportation fell victim, too, left with a bill totaling almost $2 million.

These headlines are stories of a digital war that has no geographical borders or structured logic. No one is truly immune to ransomware, and any company that thinks that way is likely not as prepared as they think they are. Beazley Breach Response (BBR) Services found a 105% increase in the number of ransomware attack notifications against clients in Q1 2019 compared to Q1 of 2018, as well as noting that attackers are shifting focus to targeting larger organizations and demanding higher ransom payments than ever before.

Immersive cyber ranges – Protect Yourself, Your Business, Your People

If your own security efforts, staff practices, and business infrastructure are continuously hardened every time a new breach headline makes the news, the things that matter most to you and your company will be better protected. One of the ways to consistently harden security practices is via immersive and persistent training on gamified cyber ranges. Some benefits of using cyber ranges like this include:

  • Helping professionals of all skill levels learn and apply preventative measures such as: regular backups, multi-factor authentication, and incident response planning and analysis.
  • Understanding what ransomware looks like and how it would “work” if it infected their company’s network.
  • Cloud-based environments can scale to emulate any size digital system and help users “see” and respond to threats in safe spaces.
  • Providing user assistance and immediate feedback in terms of rewards, badges, and progress indicators, allowing organizational leaders who want to upskill their cyber teams to see the skills gaps and strengths in their teams and identify ways to harden their defenses.

When ransomware does come knocking at your business door, will you be ready to recover from the costly and reputational damages? If there is any shred of doubt in your mind, then it’s time to re-evaluate your cyber readiness strategy. As we’ve learned, even the smallest vulnerability or level of uncertainty is enough for a cybercriminal to take hold.

Photo by Michael Geiger on Unsplash and via website.