'CyberCity' Faces Its First Attacks Next Month

SANS' model city gives military, government cybersecurity experts a cyberattack reality check

Dark Reading Staff, Dark Reading

November 30, 2012

3 Min Read

Military cybersecurity experts next month will undertake a mission to protect the six-foot-by-eight-foot NetWars CyberCity scale model just off the Jersey Turnpike that has its own hospital, cybercafe, bank, and power plant, from its first round of cyberattacks.

CyberCity is the brainchild of Ed Skoudis, director of NetWars CyberCity and an instructor with SANS, which runs the newly constructed, small-scale city that on the surface looks more like a hobbyist's collector's item. The goal of the project was to help the military's so-called "cyberwarriors" simulate how cyberattacks affect both the logical and physical worlds.

"Previous simulation environments that were built were computer-centered -- how a computer attacks another computer systems and the data they house, which is important," Skoudis says. "But, increasingly, [attacks] are moving more toward getting access and control of computers so they can manipulate real-world things."

Skoudis came up with the idea of building a model of a city a couple of years ago after meeting with U.S. Air Force security officials asking for better ways to train their "cyberwarriors" on the kinetic effects. "Just showing bits running across a network is hard," he says, but showing a power grid go dark or a train derailing is more effective.

With the help of a local hobby shop, Skoudis and his team constructed CyberCity for use by military and government personnel. It runs off of five laptops and USBs locally, with a VPN connection to some "big iron" at SANS' network operations center, he says. "There are virtualized servers for the [CyberCity] ISP, bank servers," etc., he says.

And it was all built for less than $1 million.

"When you lose control of cyberspace, you lose control of the physical world," said Eric Bassel, director at the SANS Institute, in a statement. "The threat of kinetic effect is real. We have seen detailed evidence of foreign nations deep inside the computer networks of our financial services companies, manufacturing companies and critical infrastructure. The attacks have been going on for many years, yet we have made only limited strides in fighting them off. With NetWars CyberCity, we hope to turn the tables by providing our first-line cyberdefenders with the necessary skills and hands-on training to fend off online attacks and regain control of cyberspace."

NetWars CyberCity contains four quadrants: a rocket launcher; a power plant; commercial businesses including a bank, hospital, and coffee shop; and a residential area of houses. "All are powered by its power company," Skoudis says. Video cameras are configured around the model so the participants can view the happenings there from their remote locations.

It's currently in alpha-test mode by a handful of security experts, and the NetWars competition next month in Washington, D.C., will feature the first beta test mission, which Skoudis says will be a mission with the hospital, bank, and ISP.

"By March, we'll have beta missions on the power grid and coffee shop," he says.

Is CyberCity safe from overzealous players and outside hackers? "It's always a concern. There's that possibility," he says. "If it gets hacked, it would be a bummer, but we can reset it all. We're trying to build it so legitimate participants hacking it can't physically destroy it."

The model city has already survived one disaster: Hurricane Sandy, which after 12 days without power in the New Jersey area, slowed down some of its development. But the city itself remained dry and intact, according to Skoudis.

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Dark Reading Staff

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