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Ethical hackers training in Charleston to protect infrastructure

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Protecting the nation's critical infrastructure is all about monitoring for explosives and other physical threats – but today's attacks are sometimes purely digital.

That's why 20 West Virginia National Guardsmen are on the University of Charleston's Kanawha City campus this week to become Certified Ethical Hackers. The United States Department of Defense requires the certificate for information assurance positions.

Last year, UC introduced the Golden Eagle Scholarship, which, along with federal and state aid, allows West Virginia Army Guardsmen to attend the school tuition-free and Air Guard members at a very low cost.

"The West Virginia National Guard is blessed to have such a strong community partner as we have in the University of Charleston," said Major Gen. James A. Hoyer, West Virginia adjutant general. "This is an excellent example of a leading institution in the state doing creative and innovative things to bring opportunities for our Guard members. 

"Protection of the nation's cyberspace is crucial for our future security and by working with forward-thinking partners like UC on these types of unique initiatives, the West Virginia National Guard is positioning itself to be a leader on this critical mission."

Hoyer said the course is designed to give the National Guard the ability to work with contractors, the military and the private sector on threats to United States infrastructure. Physical retaliation, he said, might not be the right way to combat a cyber attack.

"It's a whole new battle space out there today," Hoyer said. "It's the cyber realm. There are state actors, small groups and individuals that seek to do harm to the United States, to our national security and our homeland security through cyber means." 

If this is going to be a problem, Hoyer said, why not build and support the cyber warriors of the future right here in West Virginia? 

"Why not create a cadre of people who can be a part of the solution?" Hoyer said. 

One student undergoing the training today was Cpt. Tad Haddox. He's taken numerous computer science and computer sectary and is looking to elevate those skills with the hands on class. 

Haddox compares the class to finding the best way to figure out to get into your home -- you lock yourself out and try to find a way to break in. 

"This is the future," he said. "This is what we're going to have to worry about for the next 20 years. ... Someone could shut down a power grid. Pretty much everything is tied together with a network of sensors. ... If someone were able to get into that network they could adjust the voltages."

Maj. Jody Ogle, commander of the 130th's communication squad, said he and five others from his organization are there to learn how to better protect their system which supports about 1,200 users.

"There's an adversary out there and it's well documented in the news," Ogle said. "The adversary wants to stop what we do. In order to mitigate that and reduce the vulnerabilities we need to take measures to learn to think like they do." 

An ethical hacker is employed by an organization to find the loopholes and backdoors to internal networks and computer systems, mimicking a more malicious threat. By pointing out where there are deficiencies in a network, an ethical hacker can be utilized to strengthen an organization's computer network.

At the University of Charleston, students of the five-day program are predominately from the 167th Airlift Wing in Martinsburg and are taking classes at UC-Martinsburg. The students generally have a baseline knowledge of computer science and work experience. 

"The University of Charleston is very proud to partner with the West Virginia National Guard on providing this important continuing education opportunity to its members," said UC President Ed Welch. "Programs such as this help build on our already strong partnership and add to the National Guard's reputation of producing highly trained and highly skilled employees for military and civilian careers."

Welch said that while he doesn't like to think of some of the negative scenarios of a cyber threat, he's proud that University of Charleston can be a part of the solution.

"For us to have a role in addressing a national security issue and at the same time have an educational role working with students, that's a win-win," Welch said. 

A congressional report from the offices of Democrat Reps. Ed Markey and Henry Waxman just last month highlighted the challenges of cyber threats to the nation's infrastructure.

"Grid operations and control systems are increasingly automated, incorporate two-way communications, and are connected to the Internet or other computer networks," the report states. "While these improvements have allowed for critical modernization of the grid, this increased interconnectivity has made the grid more vulnerable to remote cyber attacks."

According to appendix of the report, West Virginia's two major utilities -- FirstEnergy and American Electric Power -- both submitted information that "was incomplete or non-responsive" to requests for information.

"More than a dozen utilities reported ‘daily,' ‘constant,' or ‘frequent' attempted cyber-attacks ranging from phishing to malware infection to unfriendly probes," the report states. "One utility reported that it was the target of approximately 10,000 attempted cyber-attacks each month. More than one public power provider reported being under a "constant state of ‘attack' from malware and entities seeking to gain access to internal systems."

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