By David Brown, 1LT, Texas State Guard
CAMP MABRY (Austin), Texas - In early October 2022, amid saber-rattling from Russian officials in its war against Ukraine, government websites in Colorado, Kentucky, Mississippi, and other states were knocked offline. Reports say Russian-speaking hackers claimed responsibility for what many suspected to be politically motivated attacks related to U.S. support for Ukrainian forces. Through it all, Texas’ online sites remained secure, thanks in large part to the constant work of the Texas State Guard’s Cyber Security Team.
They’ve trained for this.
When it comes to Cyber Security, the Texas State Guard is on the front lines of Texas’ defense, and exercises like January’s CyberSword 2022 were a test of the Guard’s cyber expertise and an opportunity to develop new strategies for defending Texas’ largest frontier. Although CyberSword 2022 was technically a multilayered virtual “war game”, the Guard’s participation was anything but light-hearted ‘fun and games’ online.
“The 86th Texas Legislature codified the Texas State Guard’s role in serving the state in a Cyber Security capacity,” said Captain Mark Bell of the Texas State Guard Cyber Security Unit. Since the only way to make a computer safe from hackers, Bell said, is to “turn it off” - and taking Texas ‘offline’ is not a viable option - the Texas State Guard Cyber Security Unit maintains constant vigilance.
The timing of the exercise could not have been more propitious: Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine raised concerns around the world about the threat of state-sponsored cyber-attacks.
“The thing about the Texas State Guard Cyber Security Unit is we are the only part of the Guard that continuously fights active nation-state threats, 24/7,” said Warrant Officer Christopher Caruso of the Cyber Security Team. “We are always faced with the fact that Russia, China, Iran, and hackers-for-profit are always trying to attack our systems. We’ve actually gone out on missions after ransomware attacks” pursuant to the Texas State Guard’s duty to provide mission-ready forces to assist state and local authorities in times of state emergencies.
“A couple of years ago, I was deployed to Texarkana for a Cyber Security incident there,” said Staff Sgt. Andrew Williams of the Cyber Security Unit. “The threat actors took the entire city offline. City operations were completely shut down. People couldn’t even pay their water bills, that sort of thing.” Similar attacks statewide have included the defacing of local government websites, acquiring sensitive data and vandalizing systems for profit. With so many smaller cities with limited resources across a state larger than many countries, Williams says, “it’s a wonder Texas hasn’t been the target of even more cyberattacks than it has.”
But the inevitability of future attacks only underscores the importance of exercises like CyberSword 2022. On a Saturday morning in January in a corner of the Texas State Guard Headquarters building at Camp Mabry, the Cyber Security team hunkered over monitors for an annual event involving what Williams described as a “capture the flag” exercise. After almost half a year of planning, the Texas State Guard went on the defensive against “attackers” from the Virginia Defense Force (Virginia’s state guard force).
In this role-playing scenario, ‘capturing the flag’ wasn’t the primary goal: it was discovering the latest system end-runs that can make computers vulnerable. “To be able to defend against hackers, you must learn to think like one,” Williams said. Another goal of the exercise, Bell added, was to serve as a checkpoint for internal training being developed for junior-level members of the Cyber Security Unit.
To make the process even more realistic, planners recruited some of the sharpest “white hat” hackers in the world. Participants included Sakura Samurai, an elite team of Cyber Security experts, specializing in poking holes in potential cyber defenses for governmental organizations and corporations worldwide (the hacker team counts former Texas State Guard servicemember Robert Willis among its ranks). Also participating in the exercise was Darrell Beiner, a decorated combat veteran who serves as Cyber Security Section Chief for the Veterans Affairs Administration.
By staging real-time simulations of cyber-attacks, threat intelligence specialists like Caruso can, as he put it, “understand what a threat actor does, and how they leverage it”, identifying mitigation tools and strategies for Texas’ cyber arsenal. “We set up a simulated enterprise network, complete with web servers, FTP servers, active directory, simulated desktops, and a real physical firewall and an industrial control network inside of it,” Caruso said. Partnering with the VDF marked a first-of-its-kind cross-border interagency exercise for the Texas State Guard Cyber Security forces, and Bell said he expects such training partnerships to become more common as threats become more widespread and complex.
“The original concept for this was that it was supposed to be just an internal training activity just for the cyber team here in the Texas State Guard,” Bell said. “But it caught the attention of people in higher echelons who understand the importance of sharing cyber security expertise to meet the growing threat. In the future, we are going to be inviting other agencies to participate and expand the exercise to include more complex technologies, make the challenge more difficult, and in coming years help the cyber world become a safer place for everyone.”
Central to that vision are highly trained experts in the field of Information Technology. The Texas State Guard continues to look for experienced IT professionals and others with an interest in helping defend the Lone Star State from an ever-evolving array of threats. While prior military experience is not required - the ability to meet the standards of the Guard and a willingness to serve fellow Texans is essential.
The Texas State Guard, a branch of the Texas Military Department, conducts homeland security and community service activities under the umbrella of Defense Support to Civil Authorities, augmenting the Texas Army National Guard and Texas Air National Guard as required. More information about the Texas State Guard and recruitment contacts can be found online at tmd.texas.gov/state-guard.