Foreign hackers take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to undermine institutions and threaten critical infrastructure, a US military cyber official said Thursday.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. US Cyber Command’s John Mauger came a day after Defense Department officials informed reporters about virtual war games that digital fighters from U.S. and Allied armies have held to hone their skills to counter online threats to the real world . consequence.
“We have seen an increase in hostile activity” since the pandemic started, Mauger said in a conference call, refusing to discuss the threat in more detail. “We are part of the entire government effort to defend our democracy in this complex cyber environment.”
On Wednesday, Cybercom offered reporters a peek at what it described as the greatest virtual training yet – in this case, a simulated attack on an airport’s control systems and fuel depots. Attackers tried to plant malware and gain access via phishing, while defenders hunted for the intruders and their tools.
In recent years, the Department of Defense has organized similar training exercises for its own fighters as well as those of allies and other US agencies. Partner agencies include the Coast Guard, the Energy Department and the Engineers’ Corps, which oversees the country’s dams.
The June 15-26 exercise is unique in that the pandemic forced it completely online, across nine different time zones, with 17 different ‘blue teams’ coming together to defend themselves against one ‘red team’ of attackers – over 500 participants in total.
“We realized that the ability to bring so many people together in one facility was not possible,” said Mauger. “It was not possible because of travel and it was not possible because of the need to keep a physical distance from each other.” It is the 10th year that such exercises have been held.
Great Britain, Canada and New Zealand participated. Australia, the other partner in the so-called Five Eyes alliance, was unable to participate, but plans to participate in exercises scheduled for later this year, officials said.
Cybercom accelerated the development of the virtual training environment to analyze ways to protect threats to critical infrastructure, including in energy and transportation systems. Officials said the virtual environment could also be used to test cyber soldiers’ ability to identify new types of malware. After being discovered in the real world, they could be introduced in a war game scenario.
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