(Editor’s note: Some names have been removed due to the sensitivity of the Air Force cybersecurity mission.)
JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- Spread across several hotels on the Las Vegas strip, nearly 30,000 cyber enthusiasts gathered for the 27th annual DEF CON Hacking Conference, Aug. 8-11, 2019.
Throughout the four-day event, attendees could learn new skills from industry professionals, test those skills during capture-the-flag competitions, network with others, interview for jobs, and test out products and simulators, among other things.
Of those in attendance were several Air Forces Cyber Airmen who presented their technologies or participated in cyber competitions.
One such team was the 90th Cyberspace Operations Squadron who showcased their “Bricks in the Loop” cyber-physical display.
“What we have is a toy brick model of an Air Force base,” Scott Thompson, 90th COS systems engineer, said to interested passerbys. “On it you can see approach lights, runway lights, taxiway lights. You see a hangar. We have a terminal. The bricks actually light up.”
The reason for this automation is simple, or rather, Thompson puts it simply.
“If there's some sort of interruption ... it causes an effect on the model itself,” he explained. “This cyber-physical interface provides the ground truth for our operators. The people we're trying to train, they can see the impact of .”
The 90th COS Airmen presented BIL to thousands of attendees, including dozens of reporters and one distinguished visitor.
“We got to showcase BIL to Dr. Will Roper, [Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics],” said Thompson. “It was great because it gave us the chance to talk about the importance of Industrial Control Systems and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition across the Department of Defense.”
Not too far away Air Force cyber warfare operators competed against some of the nation's best hackers in several CTFs. According to one participant, there was plenty more to gain from competition than just the first place “black badge” – a lifetime’s free admission to DEF CON.
“This helps build our comradery as a unit, similar to a temporary duty assignment or deployment,” said a 67th Cyberspace Wing CWO master sergeant. “Some of us work together, but some don’t, so the CTFs give us the opportunity to come together, build on our skill sets or learn new skills. It’s a very good form of training that’s hard to replicate anywhere else.”
The master sergeant’s team held the second place position within the Industrial Control Systems CTF for much of the competition. At one point first was just barely out of reach, but when the competition wrapped, the team placed third overall.
“Competing can be frustrating at times, but when you’re brought up against a challenge, you have to have an attitude to beat that challenge before moving on to the next challenge,” said the master sergeant. “All in all this builds a lot of confidence. When you don’t have the answer you have to break the problem down and figure it out. That’s what our jobs are all about.”
According to Thompson, the conference provided many opportunities to showcase the Air Force’s advances in aviation and cybersecurity.
“As I look around I see that our Air Force is represented on over half of this floor, including [BIL] and an F-35 simulator,” said Thompson. “How cool of a dialogue is that? Our presence shows others what we’re trying to do – protect the nation.”
Both Thompson and the master sergeant hope to attend future DEF CONs to present the next evolution of BIL and win the black badge, respectively.