Why Alternatives to Traditional Cyber Training Are Needed Immediately

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

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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!

How Cyber Security Can Be Improved

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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

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

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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.

 

Cyber Attacks and Risk Mitigation in Critical Infrastructure

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Critical infrastructure is a term used by the government to describe assets that are essential for the functioning of a society and economy (think oil and gas, water, electricity, telecommunication, etc.). According to the Department of Homeland Security, there are 16 sectors of critical infrastructure. In the past few years, we’ve seen attacks on departments of transportation, cities, and other network infrastructure that are prompting many cyber security leaders to pay closer attention to their readiness strategy and risk management. With the threat of cyberattacks against public and private sector infrastructure on the rise, it is important to understand the history of these attacks, as well as what critical infrastructure cyber security professionals can do to protect themselves against them. Today, we are going to focus on three sectors: oil and gas, energy and electricity, and transportation.

Oil & Gas Cyber Security

Much of how we live and work is dependent upon the energy produced from oil and gas production, including cooking, heating/cooling, driving, and use of electronic devices and appliances. There have been several successful attacks on this industry already:

  • One of the most famous noted attacks came in 2010 with Stuxnet, a malicious computer worm used to hijack industrial control systems (ICS) around the globe, including computers used to manage oil refineries, gas pipelines, and power plants. It reportedly destroyed a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. The worm was delivered through a worker’s thumb drive.
  • In August 2012, an unauthorized user with privileged access to one of the world’s leading National Oil Companies’ (NOCs’) computers unleashed a computer virus called Shamoon (disk-wiping malware). This virus erased three quarters (30,000) of the company’s corporate personal computer data and resulted in an immediate shutdown of the company’s internal network.
  • National Security Authority Norway said 50 companies in the oil sector were hacked and 250 more were warned to check their systems, in one of the biggest hacks in Norway’s history.
  • Ugly Gorilla, a Chinese attacker who invaded the control systems of utilities in the United States, gained cyber keys necessary to access systems that regulate flow of natural gas. In January 2015, a device used to monitor the gasoline levels at refueling stations was remotely accessed by online attackers, manipulated to cause alerts, and set to shut down the flow of fuel. Several gas-tank-monitoring systems suffered electronic attacks thought to be instigated by hacktivist groups.
  • In December 2018, Sapeim fell victim to a cyberattack that hit servers based in the Middle East, India, Aberdeen and Italy.The attack led to cancellation of important data and infrastructures.

Energy & Electricity Cyber Security

While we may not think of the energy sector as being a large cyber vulnerability, it is not only of intrinsic importance to a functioning society but necessary for all other sectors that make up the nation’s critical infrastructure.

There are not many documented cases of a successful power grid attack but that doesn’t mean they don’t occur! The first known instance taking place on December 23, 2015 in Ukraine. Hackers were able to compromise information systems of three energy distribution companies in the Ukraine and temporarily disrupt electric supply to end customers. A year later, Russian hackers targeted a transmission level substation, blacking out part of Kiev.

Although there may not be many examples of historical energy utility hacks, these kinds of attacks are no longer a theoretical concern. In 2014, Admiral Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, testified before Congress that China and other countries likely had the capability to shut down the U.S. power grid. An adversary with the capability to exploit vulnerabilities within the electric utility silo may be motivated to carry out such an attack under a variety of circumstances, and it seems increasingly likely that the next war will be cyber.

Transportation Cyber Security

Via plane, train, or automobile, the transportation sector supports nearly 10 percent of the U.S. GDP (gross domestic product), which includes monetary value of all goods and services produced within the United States. Over the past couple of years, the industry has grown in operational complexity with logistical chains, production, facility and manufacturing partners and plant management. As a result of this growth, it has become an even more alluring and accessible hacking playground for cybercriminals. There have been a few noteworthy attacks on this silo of infrastructure in the last few years:

  • Maersk: Petyamalware variant infected the IT systems of the world’s largest shipping company with 600 container vessels handling 15% of the world’s seaborne trade in June 2017.
  • LOT: A Polish airline canceled 10 flights due to an attack against the airline’s ground computer systems at Warsaw’s Okecieairport in June 2015.
  • Jeep Cherokee: A coordinated attack in 2015 by Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek demonstrated the ease by which a connected car can be remotely hacked into, in this case, using Uconnect.

 

You can see that attacks on these silos of industry have already begun (and show no signs of stopping) and we need to be prepared for what the future holds. To mitigate cyber attacks and protect critical infrastructure against looming threats, teams need to be prepared to address all possible scenarios that can occur on said attack surface in order to effectively protect and defend IT and OT critical infrastructures.

Reducing Risk in Critical Infrastructure Cyber Security

Project Ares® cyber security learning platform can prepare cyber teams with the right skills in immersive environments that emulate their own IT and OT networks to be most effective. In fact, there are exercises within the cyber range platform that have players detect threats on a water treatment plant and in an oil and gas refinery. It is designed for continuous learning, meaning it is constantly evolving with new missions rapidly added to address the latest threats in any critical infrastructure sector. Further, targeted training can be achieved from the library of battle room scenarios to work on specific skill sets like digital forensics, scripting and Linux.

Training in cyber ranges is a great way to foster collaboration, accountability, and communication skills among your cyber team as well as cross-departmentally. Persistent and hands-on learning will help take your cyber team to the next level. Benefits of this kinds of learning include:

  • Increased engagement – by keeping learners engaged they are able to stay focused on the subject matter at hand
  • Opportunities to close gaps immediately – instant feedback, instruction, and critique make it easy for learners to benefit from interaction with the instructor and peers and immediately implement this feedback to improve
  • Risk mitigation and improved problem solving – hands-on training allows learners to master skills prior to working in real-world environments. People can work through tough scenarios in a safe training environment – developing problem-solving skills without risk.

By placing the power of security in human hands, cyber security teams can proactively improve a company’s ability to detect cyber-related security breaches or anomalous behavior, resulting in earlier detection and less impact of such incidence on energy delivery, thereby lowering overall business risk. Humans are the last line of defense against today’s adversary, so prioritizing gamified training for teams will foster the level of collaboration, transparency, and expertise needed to connect the dots for cyber security across these critical infrastructure sectors.

Photo by Ian Simmonds on Unsplash

Kickstarting Your Cyber Security Career Path

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Jumpstarting a new cyber security career path can feel like a daunting initiative, however, it may be more attainable than you think. By utilizing online cyber resources and persistent learning exercises, you can start learning everything you need to know to understand career options and land your dream job.

Virtual machines and digital libraries are great places to start on your cyber learning journey. A virtual machine is a software program or operating system that exhibits the behavior of a separate computer and is capable of performing tasks such as running applications and programs like a separate computer. This enables you to create multiple independent VMs environments on one physical machine and it aids in detecting things like malware and ransomware attacks. A digital library is an online platform that offers a diverse collection of cyber security learning objectives, along with an online database of digital materials like videos and reports.

Here are some resources that can help you pursue a career in cyber security:

  • Oracle VM VirtualBox – this powerful virtualization product is for enterprise as well as home personal use. This is the best VM for home users and can be run on a multitude of operating systems.
  • Kali Linux – this is an open source tool used in information security training and penetration testing services. Kali Linux is one tool available for use in our Project Ares platform for offensive skill building and practice.
  • Security Onion Virtual Machine – this free and open sourced Linux distribution aids in intrusion detections, enterprise security monitoring, and log management. Security Onion is also available in Project Ares.
  • Flare Virtual Machine – a freely available and open sourced Windows-based program that offers a fully configured platform with a comprehensive collection of Windows security tools.
  • Cybrary – this community based digital library gives you the ability to collaborate in an open source way and create an ever-growing catalog of online courses and experiential tools to learn all things cyber security from offensive, defensive and governance.
  • Clark Cybersecurity Library – a digital library that hosts a diverse collection of cyber security learning objectives from Intro to Cyber to Adversarial Thinking. It is a high-quality and high-availability repository for curricular resources in the cyber education community.

From entry level positions to cyber security professionals, digital libraries help in understanding cyber concepts and virtual machines allow learners to apply and hone cyber skills that security professionals use on the job such as risk management, information systems security, and network security.

To complete your well-rounded cyber education, pairing these tools with hands-on practice in cyber range like Project Ares is key.

Circadence’s own Project Ares uses gamified cyber range learning environments to emulate immersive and mission-specific network threats for a variety of cyber security work roles and job titles. The Project Ares platform is constantly evolving with new battle rooms and missions to address the latest threats and includes targeted training scenarios to learn specific skillsets. This platform also offers digital badges in its Academy license, which represent credentials that can be used to indicate a variety of accomplishments and skills. These are a great way to show a prospective employer just how much you’ve taught yourself about cyber security (and you can add them to your social profiles so prospective employers can see your skills)!

From concept learning to skills application, gamification paired with persistent, hands-on training in virtual environments is an ideal approach to understanding the ins and outs of complex cyber networks and how to recognize potential vulnerabilities in today’s evolving threat landscape. Pairing Project Ares with any of the aforementioned resources is a sure-fire way to kick off your cyber security career and prepare for security certifications!

Photo by Andras Vas on Unsplash

Microsoft Azure Government Secret Helps Enhance Cyber Training

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Across the board there’s been a push from a policy perspective to get into secure cloud environments that provide organizations with the on-demand and protected availability that they need to improve business processes. Azure Government Secret is a cloud solution that delivers comprehensive and mission-enabling cloud services to US Federal Civilian, Department of Defense (DoD), Intelligence Community (IC), and US government partners working within Secret enclaves. It can also have global implications for how cyber defenders prepare for tomorrow’s threats.

The April 2019 announcement of Azure Government Secret enables Circadence to deliver Project Ares to similar defense industry partners in support of their cyber training and readiness missions. Having the power of the Azure Secret cloud infrastructure behind Circadence is necessary to deliver infinite cyber range scalability for gamified training and learning opportunities to defenders across the globe who need specialized security and scalability in training programs.

As cyber threats grow more frequent and more malicious, it is mission critical to government cyber protection teams to have the flexibility and accessibility to scale training to their needs, with limitless opportunity for enhanced cyber preparedness. The persistent, gamified training and frontier learning that occurs in Project Ares, coupled with this new level of secure cloud, enhances the protection of the nation’s most critical digital assets and will undoubtedly contribute to our overall national security.

VP of Global Partnerships Keenan Skelly tells us how it helps improve cyber training today.

“Our partnership with Microsoft Azure allows us to build infinitely scalable cyber ranges to do cyber exercises and trainings,” said Skelly.

With the help from Microsoft Azure Government Secret cloud, Circadence can continue to evolve cyber training solutions that help today’s elite, DoD cyber security professionals anticipate, prevent, and react to threats more efficiently and effectively. In doing so, we are proud to contribute to a world-class security culture that proactively protects our most critical assets and our people.

The Future of Cyber Security in the Wake of Standardized Workforce Development

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The implications of the Executive Order on America’s Cybersecurity Workforce and what it means for cyber workforce development going forward

The White House recently issued the Executive Order on America’s Cyber Security Workforce. This forward-looking executive order aims to close the cyber security skills gap and increase the number of cybersecurity professionals working in the field. This is a huge need for our critical infrastructure, national defense and modern economy. We are bound to see some changes across the industry with the passing of this bill. Although we don’t have a crystal ball to see the future, there are some implications we anticipate for the cybersecurity industry overall.

Improved Global Security from Nationally Recognized Standards

The executive order encourages widespread adoption of the cyber security workforce framework created by the National Initiative for Cyber Security Education (NICE). The use of the NICE framework will create some national standards in the industry and allow for more qualifying leverage. This will provide evaluation requirements used in contracts for IT and cyber security services.

Prioritizing Cyber Workforce Diversity

According to Cyber Security Ventures, there will be up to 3.5 million job openings by 2021 and currently, females represent less than 12% of the global cyber security workforce. This stat is crazy! To keep pace with sophisticated adversaries and develop technology that supports human cyber operator decision making, diversity of thinking and skill and approach should be a hyper-focus for the security industry.  Women are well suited for, and extremely talented at, technical fields such as information security, security engineering, and AI engineering; however, recruiting and retaining women in these fields is not where it needs to be. There is a long-standing stereotype that cybersecurity is too technical for women and that’s not the case. There are many critical skills that women bring to the table including an incredible attention to detail, problem-solving, and communication skills that are as important in cyber work as the technical know-how. Groups like Cyber Patriot, Girls Who Code, and more recently Women’s Cyberjutsu are wonderful organizations that inspire young girls and women to pursue careers in cyber and technology.

The aptitude for cyber security lies not only in the technical fields, but can also be found in many unexpected disciplines. Some of the best cyber defenders started their career out doing something completely different. We need this type of diversity and people with different backgrounds to join the industry. We need to improve thinking and skill, both technical and critical thinking skills to combat today’s adversaries.

New Methods of Cyber Security Training

In developing the workforce, we need to be cognizant of the need for new methods of training that inspire the next-gen learner. The traditional ways of learning in a classroom have worked in the past, but there are a lot of statistics that show traditional classroom settings alone aren’t the most effective in terms of applied skill preparedness and learning retention. Studies on the effectiveness of traditional classroom settings show that students lose  40% of what they’ve learned after 20 minutes and between 50 – 80% of what they’ve learned after one day, and 90% of what they’ve learned after six days.

Gamified learning approaches are currently being adopted federal agencies, banks, oil and gas and other infrastructure organizations as well as academic institutions such as the University of Colorado,  Divergence Academy, and Loudoun Public Schools. This form of active learning generally includes on-keyboard activities along with team collaboration and applying concepts to real-world scenarios, which has shown to improve retention to 75% compared to 5% through more passive learning methods like lectures with PowerPoints. Recently, a graduate student at the University of Colorado shared his experience after he played one of the cyber games in Project Ares, Circadence’s flagship learning platform. He mentioned that he liked the feeling the game created of a sense of impending danger from the robots and that made him think better and learn more as he worked to defeat them.

Pursuing ‘Cyber as a Sport’ to Capture Talent

We embrace the idea of “cyber as a sport” believing cyber security skill building can and should be fun, like sports. Cyber competitions are a great way to encourage skill-building plus they bring attention to the industry. These kinds of competitions should be happening from early school age (Girls Who Code), through high school (Cyber Patriot), and university (NCCDC), and then throughout the professional career. Competition categories can include individual and team-based events, software reverse engineering and exploitation, network operations, forensics, big data analysis, cyber analysis, cyber defense, cyber exploitation, secure programming, obfuscated coding and more.

Wicked6 Cyber Games, cyberBUFFS, SoCal Cyber Cup, and Paranoia Challenge are several examples of events where students can engage in healthy competition and skill-building among peers in an active, living lab setting. Circadence’s gamified training platform, Project Ares is used as the platform to deliver the competitive exercises though its immersive, gamified cyber range.  Realistic scenarios challenge players in mission-specific virtual environments using real-world tools, network activity and a large library of authentic threat scenarios.

Without continued effort to increase the cybersecurity workforce, our critical infrastructure, national defense and modern economy will be jeopardized.

The publication of this Executive Order is an indication that government is ready to proactively address our very serious cybersecurity challenges and is looking to new ways of training and skill building to meet the demands of today’s workforce.

To keep organizations better protected in the wake of digital transformation, legislative progress like this is a significant stepping stone to alleviating the industry’s largest challenges.

3 Ways to Prevent Cyber Security Election Interference

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Voting is the crux of what we refer to as an American Democracy. Since the 2016 elections in the United States, numerous reports have cited concerns of vulnerabilities in the voting ecosystem, detailing attempts of foreign interference by organizations such as the Russian government to exploit election results with pervasive cyber attacks.

To assist in securing critical infrastructure and preventing cyber attacks, Congress provided federal funding under the recent 2018 Consolidated Appropriations Act Election Reform Program, authorized by the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA). This funding grants states additional resources to make improvements in election cyber security.  Failure to negate election interference will only perpetuate future cyber attacks, which will lower voter confidence in the democratic process and impact on voter turnout.

Now more than ever, election security officials need to revisit their voting systems to leverage this newfound funding and better secure the human element that often causes cyberattacks. While the cyber attack surface of election systems is extensive due to the more than 8,000 jurisdictions in counties, states, and cities that maintain election infrastructure, there is one constant in the elections security system that can be leveraged—humans. With individuals and teams informing the entire voting process from voter registration to casting votes to reporting outcomes and auditing, humans are a key part in managing and directing both digital and manual processes.

If election security professionals can be better trained to understand how to stop cyber attacks using their own tools in emulated environments, the state of election cyber security will be greatly improved.

We’ve detailed three ways for election security officials to upskill their cyber security teams in spite of the variability in equipment and process.

1. ADOPT A CONTINUOUS LEARNING APPROACH TO ELECTION CYBER SECURITY  

In previous Circadence blogs, we’ve shared the benefits of a continuous learning approach, and there’s a reason for it—if cyber teams cannot keep pace with evolving adversary techniques and tactics, they won’t know how to stop them from causing mass damage. Learning basic cyber skills as well as how adversaries are using social engineering to influence election campaigns will help state, local and government election officials be better prepared to identify and respond to cyber attacks on voting systems.

Unfortunately, there have been documented instances of untrained personnel who have knowingly and unknowingly jeopardized the security of elections thus far. Notably, one of the first cryptic signs of cyberespionage came when a Democratic National Committee (DNC) help desk contractor ignored repeated calls from the FBI who were reporting a cyber threat from a computer system hack conducted by a Russian group referred to as “the Dukes28.” The article notes the contractor “was no expert in cyber attacks,” and couldn’t differentiate the call from a prank call.

Fortunately, with the passing of the Election Reform Program, now is the time for election cyber security professionals to dedicate the resources necessary to address all aspects of cyber security that affect a strong cyber posture. This includes:

  • having the proper equipment and security protocols in place
  • employing a trained team who can identify and combat threats quickly
  • deployment of cyber resilience when attacks do occur, and much more.

2. ANALYZE PREVIOUS ATTACKS TO UNDERSTAND ADVERSARY TECHNIQUES  

It is insufficient to solely analyze the specific cyber attacks from the past few years, but it is still important to see and understand the tactics and vulnerabilities exploited, particularly since electronic voting machines are not upgraded often. Two cyber attack groups, Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear are worth investigating further since their methods have been analyzed in detail already. From using fake personas to deliver stolen emails and documents to journalists, to the use of malware and spear-phishing, adversaries were able to access an operational infrastructure, implant the agent and encrypt communication to silently exfiltrate data remotely.

Understanding adversary techniques like this can inform how cyber teams train for future cyber attacks. Election officials can begin to assess the skill level of their teams and all involved in the election process to get a sense of their capabilities and how they would approach a “Cozy Bear 2.0” for instance.

3. PARTICIPATE IN OR HOST TABLETOP AND LIFE FIRE EXERCISES  

Recently, Circadence used its Project Ares platform to help the City of Houston simulate a realistic cyber attack exercise to help public and private entities better prepare for an attack scenario. Emergency response simulated a cyber attack on transportation, energy, water, and government sectors while senior leaders worked directly with technical professionals to develop timely responses.  This type of collaborative approach could be undertaken in every voting jurisdiction to test election systems.

There will always be risks, but cities and counties are realizing that the key is getting ahead of the cyber attack and to develop effective cyber readiness policies and procedures, realistic virtual training environments can help. Running through these cyber exercises with multiple players helps leaders see apparent gaps in offensive and defensive techniques while reaffirming the practices that must take place to secure any type of infrastructure.

As election security officials plan for new ways to leverage the HAVA Election Security Fund to improve processes, they will be pressed with justifying expenditures while also demonstrating that said security measures have indeed improved. The above recommendations will make elections safer and likely contribute to the restoration of public confidence in our democratic process.

The more focus election security officials place on upskilling their cyber teams with 1) continuous learning approaches, 2) analyzing past cyber attack methods, and 3) participating in realistic training events, the more effectively they reduce human error as a dominant source of cyber attacks.

To learn more ways to prevent election cyberattacks download our whitepaper “Protecting Democracy from Election Hacking.”

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