BLUFFDALE — Hundreds of Army National Guard soldiers are in Utah this week for the U.S. Department of Defense’s “largest unclassified cyber defense exercise” hosted by the Utah National Guard.

Cyber Shield 2021, which is being held at Camp Williams and includes approximately 800 participants nationwide, is a large-scale cyber exercise in which soldiers on the “Blue Team” get to practice defending a online network from the “adversarial interference” of the “Red Team,” according to Exercise Director George Battistelli.

“It’s a chance for the soldiers to actually get hands-on,” Battistelli said. “We’ve seen so many different cyber events where the National Guard is called out. ... We have to have a trained, ready cyberforce.”

Rather than rifles or handguns, the soldiers in the home base room at Camp Williams on Tuesday were armed with headsets and laptops as they worked to prevent cyber attacks being initiated by a team down the hall in a dimly lit room draped with pirate flags.

“Each year, the exercise continues to grow and get better,” said Battistelli, who added that the annual two-week training gives soldiers “the ability to actually put their hands on a keyboard and train” as if it were a real cyber attack.

Battistelli compared data to “digital bullets” and talked about the importance of defending data, whether in the context of national security, law enforcement, health care or other industries.

“We need somebody to protect and defend ... and that’s what our Blue teams are doing every day,” he said. “They’re using those different methodologies to protect those digital bullets and protect all that information, and the soldiers really get the opportunity to do it.”

Lt. Col. Brad Rhodes of the Colorado National Guard said the purpose of the cyber defense exercise is “to provide not only a training environment, but a learning and assessment environment, so that we can actually assess the skills of the teams collectively.”

Rhodes noted that the training draws a “really interesting mix” of soldiers with different backgrounds, from cyber defense professionals to soldiers with zero cyber experience.

“So we bring a whole lot of different players to this,” he said, “and people walk out of the exercise with a greater understanding of how we do a cyber exercise at the national level.”

One common cybersecurity threat is disinformation that is spread or amplified on social media by foreign adversaries, according to Rhodes, who said “it’s very difficult” to fight such disinformation once it has been widely disseminated.

“It’s really difficult to put Pandora back in the box once Pandora is out there,” he said. “So one of the things I always tell folks all the time is (to) verify what you’re seeing.”

Rhodes continued, “It’s on us as citizens of the United States to take some of that responsibility. There’s a lot of great information out there, and misinformation. But we have to take the time to actually look through it ourselves.”

The 2021 Cyber Shield at Camp Williams began on July 10 and ends on Friday, according to a press release about the event.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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