Belmont Club

Is it safe?

You’ve heard about the Top Gun training program at Nellis Patuxent NAS Fallon* to develop fighter pilots. What about Top Guru? The NYT reports:

In the desert outside Las Vegas, in a series of inconspicuous trailers, some of the most highly motivated hackers in the United States spend their days and nights probing the military’s vast computer networks for weaknesses to exploit.

These hackers — many of whom got their start as teenagers devoted to computer screens in their basements — have access to the latest in attack software. Some of it was developed by cryptologists at the N.S.A., the nation’s largest intelligence agency, where most of the government’s talent for breaking and making computer codes resides.

The hackers have an official name — the 57th Information Aggressor Squadron — and a real home, Nellis Air Force Base.


The Squadron made its public debut in 2007. “The activation of the 57th IAS significantly increases the group’s ability to replicate the full spectrum of air, surface-to-air, space, and cyberspace threats and train friendly forces to defeat them during major exercises including Red Flags here and in Alaska and Maple Flag, as well as during Aggressor road shows, said Lt. Col. Lisa Onaga, 57th ATG deputy commander. ”

One of the things the Squadron does is try to break into the information assets of Air Force installations. They recently tested the defenses of Ramstein AFP to see what they could see.

“It’s like flying against Red Air during Red Flag and working against the very best,” Colonel Bacon said. “Our job now is to take away the tactics and techniques that will ensure we are smarter and more secure.” Even off base, personnel are asked to carefully consider what they put on the internet through use of social networking sites, blogs and other personal internet sites.

The Air Force’s effort, impressive though it is, probably constitutes a very small part of the battle in cyberspace. The struggle to map the virtual structures on the Internet, to trail-watch them or booby trap them goes on unabated. The National Science Foundation had a project in 2007 called Dark Web, whose goal was to find implicit social networks and study them. It’s the probably the tip of a huge iceberg whose extent can only be imagined.


Using advanced techniques such as Web spidering, link analysis, content analysis, authorship analysis, sentiment analysis and multimedia analysis, Chen and his team can find, catalogue and analyze extremist activities online. According to Chen, scenarios involving vast amounts of information and data points are ideal challenges for computational scientists, who use the power of advanced computers and applications to find patterns and connections where humans can not.

One of the tools developed by Dark Web is a technique called Writeprint, which automatically extracts thousands of multilingual, structural, and semantic features to determine who is creating ‘anonymous’ content online. Writeprint can look at a posting on an online bulletin board, for example, and compare it with writings found elsewhere on the Internet. By analyzing these certain features, it can determine with more than 95 percent accuracy if the author has produced other content in the past. The system can then alert analysts when the same author produces new content, as well as where on the Internet the content is being copied, linked to or discussed.

Dark Web also uses complex tracking software called Web spiders to search discussion threads and other content to find the corners of the Internet where terrorist activities are taking place. But according to Chen, sometimes the terrorists fight back.

“They can put booby-traps in their Web forums,” Chen explains, “and the spider can bring back viruses to our machines.” This online cat-and-mouse game means Dark Web must be constantly vigilant against these and other counter-measures deployed by the terrorists.


*This is real Web 2.0 in action. The commenters are the site.

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