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USMMA Midshipmen Compete in NSA’s Cyber Defense Exercise

KINGS POINT, N.Y., April 20, 2016 – Midshipmen at the United States Merchant Marine Academy’s (USMMA) at Kings Point, N.Y. put their skills to the test by competing in the National Security Agency’s (NSA) annual Cyber Defense Exercise (CDX) last week.

In the exercise, the USMMA’s eight-person team competed with teams from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Naval Academy, and the Royal Military College of Canada, as they faced challenges from the NSA’s top information assurance professionals.

Superintendent Rear Adm. James A. Helis, USMS, who observed the exercise both at Kings Point and from the NSA facility near Ft. Meade, Maryland, said, “the CDX is a valuable tool to raise awareness among our future leaders about information assurance challenges and the inherent vulnerabilities of a net-centric world.  I congratulate the members of the CDX Club for facing this challenge, and for taking the initiative to further expand their skills in this important field.”

The CDX Club, which won the 2004 competition, is led by Club President Midshipman 1st Class Dakota Pederson, with technical expertise from Midshipman 2nd Class Isaiah Koontz, and faculty support from Lt. Cmdr. David Pulis, USMS, and Dr. Daniel Fong.

Pederson noted the importance of cyber defense to maintain the security of a vessel’s electronic systems, such as the Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) and Automatic Identification Systems (AIS). “By participating in these exercises, members gain a new insight to a relatively new problem that the world is facing.”  He said the exercise strengthened the CDX team’s confidence, and that they learned where to focus for the next competition.

“The CDX program is a great tool for understanding the ins and outs of creating and defending networks,” added Midshipman 1st Class William Kelsik. “It is definitely necessary to have an understanding and respect for how a network functions, what type of damage can be caused by it going down, and how scary a hacker can be.”

“CDX is a uniquely important exercise to develop the cyber security skills of the students at these military institutions,” said Kim Beam, an NSA Information Assurance Directorate senior leader. “It is an exercise where the participants put theory and classroom instruction into practice.”

“During the week the participants – who are focusing on keeping their network services available and running – experience real cyber-attacks and their impacts. The academies build networks and defend them from real attacks by exercise ‘hackers,’” said Beam. “CDX provides a competition that increases the participants’ cyber defense skills. Defensive skills and insights are gained not only by the network defenders, but also by those playing offense during the exercise. They’ll go back to defending networks post CDX.”

In addition to the core exercise, the students’ analytic skills were tested through three challenge modules, (1) Malware Analysis/Reverse Engineering challenge, (2) Host and Network Forensics challenge, and (3) Offensive Ethical Hacking challenge.  The CDX program seeks to raise awareness among future military leaders and cyber specialists about information assurance challenges, reinforce classroom instruction, build experience needed to secure and defend real-world networks, and expose participants to advanced technologies and cyber-attack techniques.

By Cmdr. Benjamin Benson, USMS

Updated: Thursday, April 21, 2016
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