COLUMBIA, Md. – U.S. Cyber Command hosted the inaugural Cyber Recon Symposium on April 20-21, a yearlong event where 16 university and college teams compete in cyber-related studies programs.
Cyber Recon is nested within CYBERCOM’s Academic Engagement Network. The AEN consists of more than 114 colleges and universities total – AEN’s breakdown includes 90 universities, 15 community colleges, 19 minority serving institutions, four military service academies and four military war and staff colleges. Participating in CYBER Recon challenges AEN students from around the country to conduct original, guided research and present their work to a panel of experts who would then choose the best of the best.
For the University of California Santa Cruz’s team, their challenge was two-fold: first, study the inner workings of a cyber weapon designed to cripple Ukraine’s electrical grid, and second, figure out how to create a safe and secure environment to study the malware while keeping it contained.
Luis Salazar, a UCSC international student from Colombia, said the challenge his team had to overcome was that there were no existing tools to safely replicate how the cyber weapon executed its attack.
“We looked at a lot of different software that might allow us to simulate the power grid, but initially we couldn’t find any way to do it,” Salazar said. “There were a lot of simulations and a lot of theoretical stuff, but nothing that would allow us to communicate with a network and see what would happen … at that point, we said ‘hey, there is not a tool for that, so let’s build it - let’s make our own tool, let’s make our own sandbox and let’s take the malware and fool it into thinking it is running on a power grid.”
And that’s exactly what the UCSC team did. They created a secure environment to test the malicious code safely, and their work earned them a coveted invitation to the Cyber Recon Symposium. The symposium was a two-day, by-invitation-only event. Teams were provided travel and lodging to attend the symposium and visit CYBERCOM’s DreamPort facility in Columbia, Md.; where they heard from various senior leaders, engaged directly with CYBERCOM personnel, and present their projects to subject matter experts.
According to Master Sgt. Katrel Bishop, non-commissioned officer in charge, AEN events manager, the purpose of CYBERCOM’s AEN programs and Cyber Recon is to engage with the future workforce, to increase cyber applied research and innovation, to increase cyber-focused analytic partnerships, and to enrich strategic cyber dialogue.
“As the Academic Engagements Events manager and NCOIC, I have been the touch point for our team’s correspondence with the AEN and Cyber Recon prep since early October 2022,” Bishop said, adding that after extensive coordination with various stakeholders, the vision for the Cyber Recon symposium was brought into focus and became a reality.
The symposium culminated with four teams personally recognized for their work by U.S. Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of U.S. Cyber Command, director of the National Security Agency, and chief of the Central Security Service, who presented four awards each, recognizing a separate area of study:
Analyst Award – research focused on threat actors or intelligence analysis methodologies – winner: University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.
Hunter Award – research with offensive cyberspace operations applications – winner:: NNaval Postgraduate School.
Guardian Award – research with defensive cyberspace operations applications – winner: University of California at Santa Cruz.
Strategist Award – research focused on cyber policy and strategy – winner: Air Command & Staff College.
Finally, Nakasone presented the grand prize, the Commander's Award – recognizing one team from among the other winners for the most innovative and promising research work.
The coveted Commander’s Award winner was none other than the team from UCSC.
“It’s just incredible to meet Gen. Nakasone in person,” Salazar said. “It isn’t something that I would have ever thought would be possible.”
Planning for Cyber Recon 2024 is scheduled to begin in May, with a call for research proposals expected later this spring.
U.S. Cyber Command is the world’s premier cyber force. It is vigilant and unrelenting in its obligation to OWN THE DOMAIN. It consists of elite cyber professionals who excel in a dynamic and contested cyber environment. CYBERCOM defends the nation, countering hostile cyber actors alongside our interagency, industry and international partners. It is always ready to fight and win as part of the Joint Force. Its ability to defend the nation, operate Department of Defense networks and support the Joint Force is unmatched.