The Red Team -- a group of NSA hackers tasked with breaking into U.S. government and military information systems to expose vulnerabilities -- was "attacking" servers set up by computer science and information technology majors at the Annapolis military college. The midshipmen, in turn, were trying to defend their network.
The NSA group was "doing reconnaissance" on the server, breaking into certain computers and adding users to the network that would allow someone from the outside to log on with a user name and password created by the NSA. In one case, they shut down the computer, leading to "the blue screen of death" -- computer parlance for a Windows machine that has been disabled by hackers and shows only a blue screen when booted up.
"It's a really practical application of what we learn in class," said Alison Teoh, 20, a junior and computer science major who is running the administrative side of the competition for the academy. "It's definitely dramatic as well, staying up four days straight and being slammed with attacks all the time by NSA."
The flurry of activity was part of the sixth annual Cyber Defense Exercise, in which all the nation's service academies compete to see who can best defend an information network from the NSA Red Team's tactics.
The Naval Academy won last year's competition, and this year is joined in the exercise by cadets from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., and the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology in Ohio.
"These future leaders will be called upon during their careers to effectively defend against an ever-present cyber threat given the military's increasing reliance on networks and information sharing," Richard C. Schaeffer, director of Information Assurance for NSA, said in a written statement. "By investing in these cadets and midshipmen now, when the stakes are simply bragging rights, we're increasing the chances of success among these same individuals when the stakes are much higher -- when they are entrusted with the nation's security."
About a dozen Mids were clustered into a room filled with more than 20 computers yesterday, and many in the exercise planned to work through the night during the entire competition, sleeping only four or five hours a day during the four-day event.
As of yesterday afternoon, most of the Mids felt good about the competition, noting on a screen that the servers of several other military academies had been disabled for longer periods than theirs. In addition to threats from the Red Team, they were responding to a simulated natural disaster that shut down the system for certain periods.
The participants are graded on how well they respond to these events, as well as how effectively they defend and recover from the inevitable success of the NSA hackers trying to cripple their systems.
Some did administrative work, monitoring all the e-mails sent and how the server was being used, properly or improperly.
Others monitored the attempts to access the system internally and externally, and one team of Mids was set up to monitor a group of "honeypot computers." These computers, designed to be less secure, act as decoys so the Red Team will spend its time hacking into computers that won't slow down the Mids' overall system.
Many of the Mids will have internships this summer with NSA and other high-profile institutions to hone their computer systems skills, part of monthlong summer programs that Mids complete to help them decide how to spend their Navy careers.
Jonathan Kindel, 22, a senior majoring in information technology and national security affairs, said he has loved his major because it combined technical study with an understanding of the history of and rising geopolitical importance of defense systems.
"I know enough now to manage skills as a program manager, but there's also a political science twist to all of it," he said. "You get to learn the impact of this stuff on an international playground."