NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. (AFNS) --
Today, just about every aspect of our lives is somehow connected to the Internet. Our personnel records can be found online as well as our financial records, employment information -- just about everything that identifies who and what we are.
On the job, the Internet is even more pervasive. Everything from our electronic military personnel flight to ordering and tracking equipment, performing maintenance and controlling the skies and space -- from unmanned drones to the deployment of nuclear weapons -- are now products of cyberspace. Our reliance upon the Internet and the cyber world has also caused a new threat: one attack could disrupt and, in the extreme, affect the Air Force mission as a whole.
At a hotel just on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., a group of some of the nation's top tech-savvy high school students met to test their cyberdefense skills in a contest that could launch them into careers as the next generation of cyberdefenders. Called CyberPatriot, the annual contest pitted students from Junior ROTC, cadets from the Civil Air Patrol and high school students from throughout the U.S. and Canada against simulated cyberenemies.
As competitors, students learn about a variety of different threats and how to combat those threats.
"We apply security applications such as antivirus, antimalware, security analyzers and security configurations to protect the computers from outside threats," said Kyal Lanum, an 11th-grade student and a member of the CAP CyberPatriot team Wolfpack, from the Colorado Springs Cadet Squadron in Colorado.
Cyberdefense experts at the competition showed students and spectators cases of just how vulnerable the nation is to cyberthreats. Simple devices, such as laptops and smart phones, changing electronic billboards and raising and lowering a draw bridge at the will of the device operator are just a few of these examples.
As harmless as these examples may sound, a person with a more malicious agenda could use this type of technology to shut down power grids or shut down the coolant system of a nuclear reactor. These threats have caused Air Force cyber officials to say that a proactive defense is the future of keeping the Air Force and nation safe from these threats.
CyberPatriot is one example of a proactive effort. The Air Force Association-sponsored competition's focus is on grooming the nation's youth to be the next wave in cyberdefense.
And their efforts are paying off. In 2009, CyberPatriot started with only eight teams consisting of JROTC and CAP cadets. In 2012, more than 1,000 teams registered and the growth is expected to continue, said Bernard K. Skoch, the commissioner of CyberPatriot and a retired Air Force brigadier general.
The competition has at least one Airman wishing he were offered the same opportunity.
"When I was in high school, this is the kind of competition that I would have loved to be a part of," said Airman 1st Class Jacob Coburn, a 23-year-old radio operator with the 89th Communications Squadron at Joint Base Andrews-Naval Air Facilities Washington, Md. "They didn't have this kind of stuff back then."
In Coburn's opinion, introducing teens to cyberdefense at this stage in their life is important, and this contest is doing just that. Coburn, whose brother, Braxton Allen, was a competitor, added that what the participants do during CyberPatriot is very similar to real-world tasks that his squadron carries out every day, especially the monitoring of their communications network.
"Within the Air Force mission, clearly the biggest challenge ... is finding the right people," Skoch said. "The Air Force's mission to fly and fight now includes cyberspace. They need talent just like every enterprise does, and I think CyberPatriot is grooming that talent at the high school age."
In its brief existence, CyberPatriot has also allowed teens to get involved in cyberdefense at unexpected levels, and it has already made its mark on the Air Force. For example, members of this year's winning team in the open division, from Alamo Academies in San Antonio, currently serve as interns, and full-fledged federal civilians, as part of the 67th Network Warfare Wing at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.
"Everyone has performed above expectation," said Jacob Stauffer, the 33rd Network Warfare Squadron Intrusion Forensic Section chief and internship program supervisor for the 67th NWW at JB Lackland.
Stauffer cited a few examples of how the interns have stood out. One intern, working in the incidents response section, discovered information that led to an investigation and eventually an official incident being opened during his first week on the job. Another intern, working in the mission assurance division, has been nominated to go to the Air Force Academy.
Cybersecurity is a huge issue for the Air Force and the government as a whole, Stauffer said. Teaching high school students these computer-related functions and the positive aspects of the functions, as opposed to the more mischievous ones, is very important.
"Computer network operations is one of those battles that we must start fighting now," said Stauffer.
From internships to cyberdefense careers, Stauffer believes the CyberPatriot competitors will be will be held in high regard as they pursue a future in cybersecurity.
"Not only is this a technical competition, it's also a study in leadership," said CAP Capt. Bill Blatchley, the coach of the CAP CyberPatriot team Wolfpack.
Cybersecurity will continue to be an integral part of a growing dependence on technology. According to cybersecurity industry leaders, a proactive approach will be key to the security of the information safeguarded within the networks. Through this approach, the Air Force will continue to improve its tactics, and competitions like CyberPatriot will help pave the way.
"CyberPatriot is about building the work force that can feed not only the United States Air Force, but can feed every element of our economy, every element of our nation," Skoch said.
If the Air Force is set up in a proactive environment, it can take advantage of what it understands about its network and its adversaries, said Maj. Gen. Suzanne Vautrinot, the commander of 24th Air Force and Air Force Network Operations at JB Lackland. This can lead to superiority in defending the nation's part of cyberspace.
"You can be proactive in the defense, and if you are proactive in the defense, I guarantee it is a game changer," Vautrinot said.
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