It was close to mid-September when 7 grim-faced executives entered a room to face a pack of hungry journalists for the grilling of their lives. A few hours earlier, a critical data breach had been discovered that had paralyzed the entire city of Shell Cove; the executives had been working round the clock to deal with the fallout. The tension was high, and the questions flew thick and fast: how long did it take the breach to be discovered? What had been stolen? Why weren’t stricter controls enforced? As the executives tried to answer the stream of questions, the strain on their faces was obvious.
Sat in a corner of the room were 4 silent onlookers, quietly observing the proceedings and scribbling notes. Because all was not as it first seemed. The onlookers were, in fact, adjudicators who were evaluating how well participants could deal with a high-pressure situation. And the ‘journalists’ were staff plucked from the Australian Department of Human Services’ (DHS) corporate communications team. And what about Shell Cove? A fictional city - all built from Lego bricks.
It may have been all pretend, but try telling that to the over 100 cybersecurity experts from Australia’s public and private sector who had been chosen to pit their wits against one another in a three-day cyber war games competition.
The competition – billed as one of the biggest ever staged in Australia - was organized by the Australian Department of Human Services (DHS), and pitted public servants from the Australian Tax Office, Federal Police, Security Intelligence Organization, Criminal Intelligence Commission and the Department of Home Affairs against twelve private sector organizations, including Verizon.
Codenamed ‘Operation Shell Breaker’, the competition was held at the DHS’ cybersecurity facility in Canberra. No expense was spared in establishing a very realistic data breach scenario.
Participants had to protect the fictional island of Shell Cove from “criminals” bent on infiltrating critical industrial control systems and infrastructure such as transportation and utilities. The infrastructure was represented by a real-life Lego city, which even included a flooded dam and a derailed train. To add to the realism, participants had to take part in mock press conferences and ministerial briefings and deal with insider threats, all under the watchful eyes of psychologists and judges. In the backdrop, giant monitors pushed live updates and new scenarios to the teams, while keeping score as to how well they were responding.
Success was judged on a number of factors, including teamwork, decision making, stakeholder communication, working under pressure, dealing with unexpected events, reporting into executives and dealing with the media.
Verizon sent six security experts from its Security Operations Center in Canberra to join a Telecom and Retail team which also included participants from other private sector organization. Although the Telecom team led for most of the competition, it was eventually pipped at the post by representatives from Law Enforcement.
“This was a great learning opportunity for the team to work with executives across industries including Government to get a realistic feel of what it’s like to be in the midst of a security incident. Learning to manage the many stakeholders all wanting a piece of your time on a range of complex issues was invaluable, said Andrew Pardoe, Operations Manager at Verizon’s Advanced Security Operations Cente in Canberra.”
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