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US Air Force beats off competition in NSA hacking fight

Training to defend, and attack

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A four-day hacking competition run by the National Security Agency (NSA) to find the top military system designers and administrators has awarded the 13th annual Cyber Defense Exercise (CDX) prize to a team from the US Air Force Academy.

"CDX offers an unparalleled opportunity for some of the nation's top students to showcase their cyber skills to NSA's leading practitioners," said Neal Ziring, technical director of the NSA's Information Assurance Directorate in a statement.

"America increasingly needs professionals with highly technical cyber skills to help the country remain safe and adapt with greater agility. We need the best and brightest to help us defeat our adversaries' new ideas."

Teams from the US Military Academy, US Naval Academy, US Air Force Academy, US Coast Guard Academy, Naval Postgraduate School, the Royal Military College of Canada, and the US Merchant Marine Academy designed and built their own virtual networks, which were then bombarded with malware and system attacks for 84 hours straight by "red team" attackers.

The CDE contest isn’t just about learning to defend networks. The other purpose is to give the 60 computer experts who make up the NSA's Red Team some opportunity to practice their hacking skills against a motivated set of network operators. Attackers and defenders worked round the clock in the competition to bring down hardware and software, or to keep it up.

The teams of students had to defend their networks (housed in a closed system at Lockheed Martin's Maryland facility) against publicly available vulnerability attacks but – more importantly – had to log all activity and explain their actions to a panel of examiners. For the second year running, the fly-boys (and girls) were awarded the top prize – the Air Force's fourth win in 13 years.

Martin Carlisle, who led the 28-member team, said that the skills his team demonstrated will become increasingly important in the years ahead. "Our nation is under attack. We need to train up a new generation of leaders," he told Reuters.

The win is hard news for the Army's US Military Academy. The Green Machine's hacking grunts clinched the first ever CDX trophy in 2001 and were on a five-contest winning streak until last year. Their attempts were beaten back this time, but the competition next year is expected to be fierce. ®

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