We live in a digital age where threats have morphed from outside physical threats to cyber ones. Cyber threats have the capacity to create chaos and decimate lives with little more than the push of a button. Technology is both thrilling and horrifying, more so the latter when it comes to cyber threats both internal and abroad.
Inside one of the United States’ primary cybersecurity facilities, the Idaho National Laboratory, is a room known as the “Dark Side,” where 50 workers keep the lights low and dim the brightness on their monitors to focus on cyber research and development. Questions about the facility remain unanswered, and photos taken by outsiders are not allowed. What we do know is that this facility is desperately trying to catch up with threats organized by hackers to systems that operate energy pipelines, nuclear power plants, drinking water systems, and hydroelectric projects across the country. Hackers can open valves, cut power, or manipulate traffic lights which can have tremendous consequences.
“This is no joke—there are vulnerabilities out there,” Scott Cramer, director of the lab’s cybersecurity program says. “We’re pretty much in reaction mode right now.” Currently, specialists are focused on “bolting on” cybersecurity protections to decades-old infrastructure control systems amongst fears that malicious entities may have already infiltrated them.
Known as the nation’s primary lab for nuclear research, the Idaho National Laboratory has expanded its expertise over the past decade where its cybersecurity work has placed it amid the cutting edge security facilities in existence. And, it is still expanding.
A new 80,000-sq. ft. building called the Cybercore Integration Center, at a cost of approximately $85 million is expected to be completed next fall. The center will consist of 20 laboratories and 200 professionals. An additional 67,000-sq. ft. building named the Collaborative Computing Center will be home to one of the nation’s most powerful supercomputers.
The lab is focused on what is known as critical infrastructure control systems, as opposed to cybersecurity systems intended to protect information, such as health records or banking. Employees of the lab work tirelessly to prevent threats similar to one that occurred in 2013. According to the Justice Department, “Seven Iranian hackers working at the behest of the Iranian government gained access to the controls of a dam in the suburbs of New York City.” The hackers were trying to remotely access the dam’s gate, but it had been disconnected for maintenance. Prosecutors, in an indictment made public in 2016, called it a “frightening new frontier in cybercrime.” Even more frightening is the fact that those hackers remain wanted by the FBI.
The Dark Side room is located in one of the multiple buildings within Idaho Falls that play host to the labs cybercore, a division within National and Homeland Security. “That workforce is a unique culture with brilliant minds,” says Cramer. There is also an electronics lab where computers are dismantled and later examined as well as a car-sized computer that aids in testing security systems for Western utilities, including Idaho Power, which serves an estimated 1.2 million people in southern Idaho and eastern Oregon.
The Idaho National Laboratory continues to look toward the future by recruiting students and veering them toward cybersecurity careers. Hackers from foreign entities and nation states attempt to breach the systems security, even if they have no intention of harming or stealing information. Darren Stephens, a cyber-researcher at the lab, says “Those are the kids we’re looking for.” The only way to beat a hacker is to be equally genius at hacking and cybersecurity protocols.
Recently, the lab held a contest among college students that involved Idaho universities and other national labs and colleges where workers in the lab’s Dark Side attempted to hack into systems the students tried to defend. Not only is it a competition, but it gives the lab an idea of the next generation of cybersecurity workers. As cybersecurity continues to grow both in need and as an industry, more workers will be needed to fill those positions.
Cramer says, “Universities don’t even have curriculums to train future cybersecurity workers. The problem is so new and challenging that we don’t have the workforce right now to challenge the problem efficiently. We’re in a bit of a scramble mode to help get caught up and train folks to get our arms around a big national challenge.”
While technology continues to expand to new heights, cybersecurity is right behind it, growing to meet the new threats that hover just behind the screen.