‘The next battlefront:’ Fort Mill students train to fight national cyber attacks

Nation Ford JROTC cyber defense team learns to protect

The cyber defense team at Nation Ford High School in Fort Mill SC won a national championship.
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The cyber defense team at Nation Ford High School in Fort Mill SC won a national championship.

Donald Steele is a man of many talents, but it’s unclear if co-workers are sold on his comedy routine.

“I’ve often joked with my co-workers, that I could replace you easily with a cadet,” he said.

Those cadets are national champions. Nation Ford High School’s JRTOTC recently won a cyber defense title from among 4,000 teams. All without leaving school.

“It’s all virtual,” said Steele, a bank data manager in his first year coaching the Marine Corps JROTC program. “It was on a Friday during school.”

CyberPatriot is a national youth cyber education program run through the U.S. Air Force. Teams get an operating system. They get a scenario. They get files that aren’t supposed to be there. The teams able to debug and run the systems best in six-hours earn top scores.

“It covers every major piece of technology an IT professional would encounter,” said Steele, a former Army medic.

Some team members had an interest in computers, while others want to pursue military or technology careers. All say they’ve learned how to compete through the Nation Ford program, now in its fourth year.

“It can be a game changer,” junior William Durkan said.

Listening to students describe their competitions is a game in itself.

“It’s a three-image system,” Durkan said. “You’ll run something through Linux, Windows and then there’s usually a Cisco Packet Tracer, which has to deal with setting up a network.”

Got it?

“It’s typically a system that’s used by some workplaces,” said sophomore Andrew Fetch. “It’ll say a workplace has this many users, these are all authorized, these are administrators. And it’ll give you specific tasks like they want you to download these things, make sure these are activated.”

Sophomore Caeden Intemann explains for the less digitally inclined.

“It kind of teaches you how to protect your computer from incoming threats,” he said.

Threats like malware, viruses and hacks that actual military technology professionals face daily.

“They do this kind of thing for a living,” Intemann said. “They protect computers, and that’s kind of what I want to do.”

New drills

In its 10th year, Nation Ford’s JROTC program has 10 national titles in rifle shooting, and team wins for drill, physical fitness and academics. The program has earned eight straight Naval Honor School distinctions. It’s been named three times as outstanding marine corps JROTC unit in the six-state region.

Cadets run summer camps for middle and high school students. The program started with 44 cadets and now has 180.

Part of the program’s ongoing success is getting cadets ready to face today’s military challenges, Steele said.

“As you’ve read headlines, you’ve seen things happen where different companies have been breached,” Steele said. “Different information is leaked. These types of fields are kind of where the next battlefront is happening.”

From hostile nations to hackers, Steele sees a need for cyber defense.

“We have different groups that have an interest in destroying our way of life, and this is where these skills come into play,” he said.

The whole idea is to get cadets thinking about the next challenge and how to solve it.

“Our country evolves. Technology evolves. The concept of what a threat is evolves,” Steele said. “How do you combat a cyber threat? How do you defend against it?”