Midshipmen from the Naval Academy won a mock war in cyberspace this week, faring better against an elite team of National Security Agency hackers than their rivals at the other service academies, the Fort Meade-based spy agency said.
It was the midshipmen's third victory in the 15-year history of the annual competition. Teams from the U.S. Military Academy and the Air Force Academy, where the competition forms part of the curriculum, have claimed the lion's share of the titles.
Officials described the weeklong competition, which pitted cadets from Annapolis, West Point, the Air Force Academy, the Coast Guard Academy and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy against each other, as an opportunity for the nation's future officers to put classroom learning into practice. Joining the competition this year was a team from the Royal Military College of Canada.
The teams competed from their campuses. An NSA "red team," working out of an office park in Columbia, tried to hack into the students' networks.
Maryland is a hub for the Defense Department's computer warfare activities: Fort Meade is home to U.S. Cyber Command and the Navy and Marines' cyber units, and the Naval Academy is constructing a $120 million facility where it will train midshipmen to attack and defend naval networks.
Alex Gates, an official in the NSA's Information Assurance Directorate, said the competitors take the experience they gain from the tournament into their professional careers.
"I think these types of events are crucial," he said. "You can make mistakes and learn from them and improve."
The rules were simple: Each cadet or midshipman team built a network, and the NSA red team tried to steal information or knock services offline.
The defending teams scored points for blocking attacks and keeping data safe. The Naval Academy had the highest score at the end of the week.
There are some constraints. The NSA team was not allowed to stock up on secret tools or weaknesses to mount attacks. The defenders are not allowed to use the best security equipment.
The Naval Academy came from behind to clinch victory. On Wednesday, when the NSA red team hosted reporters at its office park headquarters, West Point held a narrow lead over the Air Force Academy. Annapolis trailed the traditional cyber powerhouses.
Dozens of military service members and some civilians packed the office suite. Black laptops sat on rows of desks. A Jolly Roger hung from the ceiling. Internet cables sprouted from the desks.
The room was filled with the chatter of the attackers making plans.
"We have a lot of fun doing this," said Navy Lt. Joseph Wissler, who ordinarily spends his time defending Defense Department computers, not breaking them open.
A screen showed a diagram of the academy networks and the simulated Internet to which they were connected. Green lines indicated computers communicating with one another. Lines traveled from right to left across the screen, indicating that the NSA teams were mounting an attack, according to Air Force Capt. Jonathan Bristow.
Another screen showed a website set up by the Royal Military College of Canada. It had been defaced by the NSA attackers.
"The poor students at RMC today realized that they should not actively poke the sleeping bear," the site read. Below that was a photograph and the words "Hackers gonna hack."