Everett Community College (EvCC) has become the first community college in the nation to train students with a new state-of-the-art industrial network security technology system.
The system is called “The Wall”, it’s a 15-foot reciprocally active $100,000 industrial network security training system that will train students to protect physical infrastructure from cyber attacks using real industrial components and networks.
According to the school’s press release, Information Technology students will begin using the college’s new industrial network security straining system in the Fall quarter. EvCC information technology instructor, Dennis Skarr explained, “Our students will learn how to control the system, defend it from attack, and even find vulnerabilities and hack it themselves… Traditionally, this kind of interactive learning experience has only been available at national security conferences.”
The system was designed to have a diversity of products as well as protocols within it for learning exercises and for creating different environments for students to learn. “So this isn’t really like a replica because it is a functional environment,” said Skarr.
The college was awarded over $1.3 million in grants through the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges to fund the new technology, classes, and future cyber challenges. One of the grants was a $78,000 Workforce Development Technology Enhancement grant, the other two were Career Launch grants totaling $1.3 million, according to the release.
Additionally, the Career Launch grants are competitively awarded to endorsed training programs as part of Career Connect Washington. Launched by Gov. Jay Inslee, this program brings together K-12 schools, colleges and universities, and business and labor patterns to provide high school and college students real-life professional experience through internships, apprenticeships, and job-shadowing opportunities. GRIMM, a national leader in cyber-to-physical security research, is developing EvCC’s industrial network security training wall, trainers, and cybersecurity competitions.
Professor Skarr has performed cybersecurity missions and training for the Nation Guard for over 10 years. Before the arrival of “The Wall”, Skarr would use his previous mission experiences and roll them into the fabric of the class. “Usually every other quarter I would disappear for a week or two and go on a mission. When I would come back, I wouldn’t be allowed to talk about who I was doing the mission for, but I could say what type of work that I was doing. So, what I would do is make assignments based off of some of the work I encountered during my mission. So, these students were getting an element of this world but not the hands-on training. Now they can train on real equipment for real-world incidents.”
Current SANS Institute student, Christopher Von Reybyton graduated from EvCC last spring, but when he found out about “The Wall” he decided to come back for one more class. Van Reybyton credits Skarr’s passion for cybersecurity as one of the main influences for his decision to pursue a career in the Cybersecurity world. “I am excited to learn how to exploit and defend ICS (Industrial Control Systems). The ability to get hands-on with technology is important in education especially when most of what we do is virtual.” Von Reybyton emphasized that with this equipment, they will see how an attack can damage a system in real-time. Once trained, they will be able to mitigate the same types of attacks. “It also opens up the doors for creating competition teams which will give individuals the skills they need as part of the future workforce.”
Skarr hopes to bring in the industry to actually see the work they are doing firsthand by inviting local Snohomish County businesses for a workshop to watch and see what the students are working on. He hopes these types of events will help people understand how valuable these skills are.
The school also plans on competing in cyber challenges for high school and college students to compete in a series of technical challenges using this technology. Skarr explained that with the funding, they can acquire a third wall segment that is scheduled to arrive in June. “Right now, we are the only community college to have a program this advanced, we have the first and only program,” said Skarr. “Once we get the third section of the wall, we will even be ahead of everybody else because we actually have the gear.” The money is helping the program expand to include 28 Individual Operational Technology Trainers (OT Trainers) that fluctuate in cost between $6,000 to $30,000 each.
These trainers will enable both the students and outside workshop individuals to have a personal training device in front of them so they can have access to a real industrial device running an industrial program. Basically, these trainers are used for entry-level work for anyone training in this field. 16 of the 28 OT Trainers will be used for group exercises and collegiate level competitions. The school will have 12 advanced model OT Trainers that cost upwards of $30,000 a unit.
When the OT Trainers are activated, they will serve as miniature versions of “The Wall” for individual exercises. They replicate an industrial environment as well as a virtual business within it. So, when students are logged on they can scan the virtual company’s servers for specific databases, workstations, and so forth. Once they are inside the database they can steal any files and implant ransomware.
This is similar to the recent ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline by a group called “Darkside” where they shut down operations to an important pipeline that is used to get both gas and jet fuel to almost 50% of the East Coast.
“We could create some images that work like virtual machines on our workstations that mimic a billing system, encrypt it and then show students that the systems still work but that the workers weren’t able to bill anybody,” said Skarr. He went on to explain that the ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline could happen to any business, it just so happened to occur on an industrial device.
Another example is the Oldsmar Water Treatment Facility incident that was in the news last year. According to CBS News, the hacker was controlling the computer system’s mouse – opening various functions on the screen and changing the sodium hydroxide levels in the water supply. If ingested in large amounts, sodium hydroxide can cause vomiting, chest and abdominal pain.
“After the Oldsmar Water Treatment Facility incident that was in the news, one of the things I was working on doing was duplicating what could be done in that incident so we could practice in a similar environment,” said Skarr.
So, these students will be learning from a defensive position, preventative security controls to possibly detect or mitigate similar situations and set up procedures where a company could recover faster in case of a worst-case scenario.
Skarr believes this program’s birth is a game-changer for academica to have such a sophisticated system at any campus. “I really think Everett Community College is going to be a big driver in this space… with these competitions, workshops, and training, there’s no way it won’t generate more interest in the STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math).
Skarr insists that without the help of William Stuflick, the Dean of Business and Applied Technology, the EvCC leadership team, the grants team, and everyone at the college, none of this would be possible. “This is an extraordinary achievement delivered by extraordinary people and their passion and heart shine in every little detail of this project.”