Five hours into their assault on West Point, the hackers got serious.
The SQL [structured query language] inserts that came earlier were just pablum intended to lull the Army cadets into a false sense of security. But then the bad guys unleashed a stealthy kernel-level rootkit that burrowed into one workstation, started scraping data and "calling home."
It was a highly sophisticated attack, but this time the bad guys were really good guys in wolves' clothing.
For four days in late April, the National Security Agency -- the nation's most secretive repository of spooks, snoops and electronic eavesdroppers -- directed coordinated assaults on custom-built networks at seven of the nation's military academies, including West Point, the Army university 50 miles north of New York City.
It was all part of the seventh annual Cyber Defense Exercise, a training event for future military IT spe******ts. The exercise offered a rare window into the NSA's toolkit for infiltrating, corrupting or destroying computer networks.
The 34 Army cadets comprising the West Point IT team operated in a different kind of battlefield, but their combat skills and instincts need to be every bit as sharp. Like George Washington said: "There is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet the enemy."
The SQL injections, targeting their Fedora Core 8 Web server, were a piece of cake for these IT combatants. Each injection tried to smuggle malicious code inside the seemingly harmless language used by the network’s MySQL software. The cadets handily defended with open source Apache web server modules, plus some manual tweaking of the SQL database to "avoid any surprises," in the words of Lt Col. Joe Adams, a West Point instructor who helped coach the team.
But the kernel-level rootkit was much more dangerous. This stealthy operating-system hijacker can open unseen "back doors" into even highly protected networks. When they detected the rootkit's "calls home" the cadets launched Sysinternal's security software to find the hijacker, then they manually scoured the workstation to find the unwelcome executable file.
Then they terminated it. With extreme prejudice.
"This was probably the most challenging part of the exercise, since it required them to use some advanced techniques to find the rootkit," Adams says. And rooting it out helped boost the West Point team to the top of the pile when, in the aftermath of the exercise, the referees rated all the universities' network defenses.
For the second year in a row, the Army placed first over the Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and others, winning geek bragging rights and the privilege of holding onto a gaudy, 60-pound brass trophy festooned with bald eagles and American flags. Adams credits the team’s thorough preparation and their excellent teamwork despite the round-the-clock schedule.
At the network control room on the second floor of West Point’s 200-year-old engineering building (which once was an indoor horse corral and still smells like it in some remote corners, according to one instructor), the IT team set up cots and, just for the hell of it, camouflaged netting. They worked in shifts, with one team member always monitoring incoming and outgoing traffic. He or she would alert other cadets -- "router guys" -- to block any suspicious addresses. Meanwhile, off-shift cadets would make food and coffee runs to keep everyone fueled up and alert. Together, the team was "faster than anyone else," Adams says.
But the way the cadets designed their network was a big factor in their victory, too. The NSA dictated some terms: All networks had to be capable of e-mail, chat and other services and had to be up and running at all times despite any attacks or defensive measures. Beyond that, the teams were free to come up with their own designs.
West Point's took three weeks to build. The cadets settled on a fairly standard Linux and FreeBSD-based network with advanced routing techniques for steering incoming traffic in directions of the IT team's choosing.
The choices in software tools for responding to any attack really boiled down to "automatic" versus "custom," says Eric Dean, a civilian programmer and instructor. He adds that while automatic tools that do most of their own work are certainly easier, custom tools that allow more manual tweaking are more effective. "I expect one of the 'lessons learned' will be the use of custom tools instead of automatics."
Even with a solid network design and passable software choices, there was an element of intuitiveness required to defend against the NSA, especially once it became clear the agency was using minor, and perhaps somewhat obvious, attacks to screen for sneakier, more serious ones.
"One of the challenges was when they see a scan, deciding if this is it, or if it’s a cover," says Dean. Spotting "cover" attacks meant thinking like the NSA -- something Dean says the cadets did quite well. "I was surprised at their creativity."
Legal limitations were a surprising obstacle to a realistic exercise. Ideally, the teams would be allowed to attack other schools' networks while also defending their own. But only the NSA, with its arsenal of waivers, loopholes, special authorizations (and heaven knows what else) is allowed to take down a U.S. network.
And despite the relative sophistication of the NSA's assaults, the agency told Wired.com that it had tailored its attacks to be just "a little too hard for the strongest undergraduate team to deal with, so that we could distinguish the strongest teams from the weaker ones."
In other words, grasshopper, nice work -- but the NSA is capable of much craftier network take-downs.
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