CyberCity lets government hackers train to thwart attacks

CyberCity has all the makings of a regular town. There’s a bank, a hospital and a power plant. A train station operates near a water tower. The coffee shop offers free WiFi.

But only certain people can get in: government hackers preparing for battles in cyberspace.

The town is a virtual place that exists only on computer networks run by a New Jersey-based security firm working under contract with the Air Force. Computers simulate communications and operations, including email, heating systems, a railroad and an online social networking site dubbed FaceSpace.

Think of it as something like the mock desert towns that were constructed at military facilities to help American soldiers train for the war in Iraq. But here, the soldier-hackers from the Air Force and other branches of the military will practice attacking and defending the computers and networks that run the theoretical town. In one scenario, they will attempt to take control of a speeding train containing weapons of mass destruction.

To those who participate in the practice missions, the digital activity will look and feel real. The “city” will have more than 15,000 “people” who have email accounts, work passwords and bank deposits. The power plant has employees. The hospital has patients. The coffee shop’s customers will come and go, using the insecure WiFi system, just as in real life.

To reinforce the real-world consequences of cyberattacks, CyberCity will have a tabletop scale model of the town, including an electric train, a water tower and a miniature traffic light that will show when they have been attacked.

“It might look to some people like a toy or game,” Ed Skoudis, founder of Counter Hack, the security firm in central New Jersey that is developing the project, said recently while giving a reporter a tour of the fledgling system. “But cyberwarriors will learn from it.”

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