Private firms bet they can improve their cybersecurity preparedness by copying tactics used by the armed forces
Cybersecurity-training programs modeled on military tactics are making their way to the private sector.
Similar to how the armed forces stage war games to test the readiness of their troops for battle, these “hands on” training programs put companies through simulated breaches designed to test the effectiveness of the security tools, policies and teams they’ve put in place to defend themselves.
Insufficient planning and preparedness is the most significant barrier to achieving a high level of cyber-resilience within an organization, 65% of IT professionals said in a recent survey released by the Ponemon Institute, a Michigan-based security-policy research center.
And as highly publicized hacks on organizations such as Sony Corp., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and the Internal Revenue Service have shown, even large, well-funded organizations can easily fall victim to cybercriminals, whose attacks are growing more sophisticated as the security industry struggles to keep up.
Lance Hayden, a former Cisco Systems Inc. security manager and now Berkeley Research Group LLC managing director, says practicing cybersecurity skills in a safe, controlled environment before a breach ever happens is a smart thing to do.
“You can only go so far with book knowledge before you need to try these things in a lab environment,” he says.
Among the cybersecurity firms championing military-style preparedness training is iSight Partners, which was acquired by FireEye Inc. FEYE 2.23 % earlier this year. The company’s ThreatSpace training program, run by retired Adm. Patrick Walsh, uses data collected by iSight’s intelligence agents around the world to create simulations that mirror the latest emerging security threats. ThreatSpace then puts a company’s IT security team through a multiday exercise to practice how it would respond to the various threat scenarios if they were actually happening.
Done on a company’s home turf, the ThreatSpace training is designed to help organizations identify vulnerabilities not only in their networks, but in their employee training and corporate security policies, as well, says Adm. Walsh, who spent more than 30 years in the Navy.
“We want to energize and pressurize a team to evaluate their readiness,” he says, adding that the cybersecurity industry needs to learn what the Navy learned long ago—that having a training environment that mimics the fighting environment is the best way to improve preparedness.
Think like a hacker
Whereas iSight’s product is focused on identifying gaps and weaknesses in a company’s defenses, other training programs want to help companies come at the issue from the mind-set of a hacker.
The SANS Institute, a nonprofit computer-security training organization, says companies are expressing increased interest in its NetWars training program in the wake of the many corporate breaches reported in 2014 and 2015.
NetWars was inspired by DEF CON, one of the world’s largest hacking conventions, held annually in Las Vegas. The conference holds a tournament every year where some of the world’s best hackers attempt to attack each other.
Tim Medin, a SANS Institute instructor and self-proclaimed hacker, says NetWars training involves two teams competing in a virtual version of the playground game King of the Hill. Each team has what NetWars calls a castle, and they have to defend their own castle while trying to attack the opposing team’s.
Although they are engaged in a game, the cybersecurity professionals are using the same equipment a security team would actually use in a typical company, including Web servers and Linux software. Mr. Medin says SANS updates the game every year to include recently identified threats, and the training can be done on-site at a company or at an off-site location.
The purpose of NetWars, he says, is to help security and IT professionals think creatively and engage in hacking behavior they typically wouldn’t be able to experiment with at work. “You can sit someone in front of a book or a class, and it’s good to learn but it loses some of the excitement,” Mr. Medin says.
Though their training programs come at the issue of cybersecurity preparedness from two different angles, both Adm. Walsh and Mr. Medin say the hands-on experiences inspire employees to stay later and learn more. Mr. Medin says it isn’t uncommon to see employees strategizing until 3 a.m.
Adm. Walsh says it is important that companies see how well their security systems and teams perform in the heat of the moment, before a real breach happens. It helps them understand their “level of readiness in a way they’re not going to see unless there’s an actual breach,” he says. “It is one of those triple plays where you feel like you’re really helping people get ahead.”
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