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Cyber operations Airmen 'Hack the Air Force'

1st Lt. Stephen Baker, 352nd Cyber Operations Squadron, watches as one of the Hack the Air Force 2.0 participants attempts to breach the security on a .mil website Dec. 9, 2017.

First Lt. Stephen Baker, 352nd Cyber Operations Squadron, watches as one of the Hack the Air Force 2.0 participants attempts to breach the security on a military website Dec. 9, 2017. HtAF2.0 is a Defense Digital Service sponsored event where civilian cyber security experts were invited to identify and report vulnerabilities in more than 300 Air Force sites. (Courtesy photo by HackerOne)

Capt. Katherine Lawall, 390th Cyber Operations Squadron, answers questions posed by local high school students during a “Hackers Panel” Dec. 9, 2017

Capt. Katherine Lawall, 390th Cyber Operations Squadron, answers questions posed by local high school students during a “Hackers Panel” Dec. 9, 2017. HackerOne coordinated with the non-profit organization Code.org, to invite a group of students to the Hack the Air Force 2.0 event to learn more about computer sciences. (U.S. Air Force photo by Trevor Tiernan)

NEW YORK (AFNS) -- Within 30 seconds of receiving the order to “start hacking,” researchers at the Hack the Air Force 2.0 event discovered two vulnerabilities—exactly the result the organizers were hoping for.

The researchers were cyber security specialists invited to the Dec. 9, 2017 event in New York to identify security gaps in Air Force websites.

Hack the Air Force 2.0 is a continuation of the Hack the Air Force event held in June 2017. Initiated by the Defense Digital Service, the event is a by-invitation opportunity for computer experts outside the Air Force to assist in strengthening the service’s defensive cyber posture, by discovering and reporting vulnerabilities in Air Force websites.

DDS contracted HackerOne, an internationally respected vulnerability disclosure and bug bounty company, to host and coordinate the event. Twenty Fourth Air Force sent a team of Airmen from the 90th, 315th, 352nd and 390th Cyber Operations Squadrons to work alongside their industry counterparts discovering bugs and weaknesses.

“This was a first to showcase our offensive capabilities in an official capacity alongside private and commercial sectors and international partners,” said Maj. Gen. Christopher Weggeman, 24th AF commander. “Not only does this program strengthen those partnerships, it allows the Air Force to both teach and learn from the best and brightest outside of the [Department of Defense].”

Even though HackerOne invited some of the world’s elite hackers to the event, they were surprised to find the Air Force sites were not that easy to crack.

“They were impressed,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Joshua, 24th AF deputy chief of staff. “As a vulnerability was identified, shortly thereafter, hackers would be attempting to highlight the vulnerability to another team of hackers … but the vulnerability had already been patched. They’d be trying to grab screen shots to prepare a post-day brief, but they couldn't because the systems were already healthy.”

The non-Air Force researchers were able to receive cash rewards of up to $50,000 for each vulnerability they identified under a practice commonly used in private sector known as “Bug Bounties.” Under bounty programs, companies pay so-called “white hat” hackers a reward for pointing out holes in their security.

“Hack the Air Force allowed us to look outward and leverage the range of talent in our country and partner nations to secure our defenses,” said Peter Kim, Air Force chief information security officer. “We’re greatly expanding on the tremendous success of the first challenge by targeting approximately 300 public facing Air Force websites. The cost-benefit of this partnership in invaluable.”

For Maj. Barrett Darnell, 315th COS, the highlight of the day was the interaction between different groups participating.

“What stood out was seeing private sector, independent bounty hunters and the government all come together to find these vulnerabilities,” he said. “I was amazed at the creativity [of the researchers] with some of these issues that were found. So the best part was seeing all these resources come together to solve security problems.”

In a rapidly and perpetually evolving domain such as cyber, interacting with industry partners is essential for the Air Force to stay on top of its game.

“Our cyber warriors are in the fight every day,” said Weggeman. “Our Airmen operate within Air Force networks and employ offensive and defensive capabilities 24/7 in a highly contested environment where the adversary constantly changes tactics and techniques, creating complex vulnerabilities. Participating in the HackerOne hosted ‘hackathon’ allowed our cyber warriors to showcase their immense talent and skills while also learning and strengthening relationships with our partners in industry and other nations.”

At the close of the event, after 12 hours of hacking, participants had identified multiple vulnerabilities, protected 300 Air Force websites and forged immeasurable new partnerships.

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