Hooked: Employees quickly catch on to cyber wars

Arizona Cyber Warfare Range volunteer David Hernandez (standing) teaches GCU admissions counselors how to crack passwords during Cyberfest on Tuesday.

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

Most days, you’ll find Benton Trerise honing his biblical wisdom, diving into the history of Christianity and perhaps polishing his knowledge of the Gospels as a Grand Canyon University master’s student in the College of Theology.

And most days, you’ll find him extolling the virtues of GCU to students who are thinking of becoming a future Lope.

But not Tuesday.

Instead, the University admissions counselor was cracking passwords and virtually chasing down bank robbers at the Arizona Cyber Warfare Range-Metro Phoenix during its Cyberfest open house.

The range, a free, open-to-the-public cybersecurity training facility in Building 66 near Camelback Road and 27th Avenue, invited GCU employees to stop by, meet the volunteers who run the range, see exactly what goes on there and maybe try their hand at a few cybersecurity activities.

Range volunteer David Hernandez told employees in attendance that to learn how to defend, you have to learn how to attack – something the range teaches using the same activities cybercriminals engage in, such as breaking into networks, cloning keycards and cracking passwords.

The Arizona Cyber Warfare Range-Metro Phoenix opened at GCU in November.

“I got all three passwords,” Trerise said with a smile during Cyberfest’s morning password cracking session.

Trerise, who decided to stop by the range with a team of a half-dozen admission counselors, said that while he uses computers, he isn’t necessarily a computer whiz.

“I do lighter stuff, but not like this,” he said.

He moved on from password cracking to analyzing network traffic, such as email and the like, to try to apprehend some wayward bank robbers. If he didn’t know it before, he learned he had a bit of a hacker in him after all.

“It (Cyberfest) did get me a little bit interested in cybersecurity,” he said.

Admissions counselor Jordan Cuda attended the open house to learn more about the range so he can talk knowledgeably about it with potential students.

“Today was my first time here,” Cuda said, adding of the password-cracking activity, “I was not very successful at it.”

Fellow East Valley admissions counselor Zachary Schwab said he also didn't do so well at getting past some of the passwords during Tuesday’s cyber activity. But doing a little bit of hacking was “like something you see in the movies.”

Trerise said he would be telling future students that this is one of the learning resources available to them if they do become a Lope: “It’s easy to learn (the cybersecurity tasks) even if you have minimal computer knowledge.”

“The event was organized just to get GCU staff and faculty familiar with the range,” said Savy Clark, the College of Science, Engineering and Technology's Technology Program Coordinator.

CSET Assistant Dean Heather Monthie noted that “this was a world so many weren’t even aware existed.”

The volunteer-run, 4,500-square-foot range opened officially in November in GCU’s Innovation Center as a partnership between the Arizona Cyber Warfare Range, the Arizona Cyber Threat Response Alliance and the University. The range is part of the University’s efforts to become a leader in STEM education – that’s science, technology, engineering and math.

Part of that vision includes a big push in cybersecurity education, and the end game is to strengthen the country’s cybersecurity workforce. According to Cyberseek, the industry currently has nearly 300,000 openings in the United States.

Admissions counselor Benton Trerise (seated, second from left) made it past a few passwords.

Not only does the University tout the new cyber warfare range; CSET recently launched a master’s degree program in Cybersecurity, and the Colangelo College of Business in the next few months plans to begin offering a master’s degree in Business Administration with an Emphasis in Cybersecurity.

Mitchell Neiling, a core volunteer with the Arizona Cyber Warfare Range, said the facility is a boon to anyone seeking a well-rounded cybersecurity education. While learning theory from a book has its place, getting that hands-on, practical experience is important, too. Even if GCU faculty and staff aren’t planning to go into cybersecurity as a career, he added, they still can learn valuable skills at the range.

“It’s a good skillset to know, like the ability to make a strong password,” Neiling said.

A good password might take a hacker months, even years, to crack, he said. As staff and faculty learned at the range during Cyberfest, hackers can crack a weak password in a matter of minutes.

Ultimately, though, the facility’s goal is to get people more interested in cybersecurity and into the industry.

“We have a guy coming in here two or three months now. … Originally he worked at a tea shop. Now he’s doing industry stuff. He’s pivoting,” Neiling said, adding how the range is looking for people with a special skillset that you can’t teach -- just someone with a raw analytic ability and problem-solving skills, someone who wants to put in the time to do it." He added, “We definitely provide the opportunity to explore their interest" and touts how the range gives people, not just the ability, but the confidence to solve big problems and push “the world forward in a meaningful way.”

Network forensics is just one of the activities taught at the range.

Perhaps it's someone like Trerise, admissions counselor and theology student by day who seems to have a knack for the cybersecurity activities at the range. While his co-workers had gone back to the office, he was still at the range tackling the next activity.

"Still here?" someone asked.

"Still here," he said.

You can reach GCU Today senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @LanaSweetenShul.


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May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14)

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