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North Carolina National Guard cyber team on election duty

By Sgt. 1st Class Robert Jordan | North Carolina National Guard | March 3, 2020

RALEIGH, N.C. – The militia at the founding of the republic was ready in a minute to defend their homeland, but for this modern, hand-picked team of North Carolina National Guard (NCNG) cyber experts, that reaction time is way too slow.

Eighteen NCNG cyber specialists reported for state active duty in Raleigh to defend the integrity of the North Carolina electoral system from cyberattack before and during "Super Tuesday" elections March 3.

This critical mission is just one of the threats the NCNG is prepared to respond to with its Cyber Security Response Force (CSRF), a team of 10 full-time cyber professionals with a bench of over 400 drilling Army and Air Guard cyber specialists.

"They bring real-world experience as well as professionalism to incidents, and provide a calming voice in what can often be a chaotic and stressful cyberattack environment," said Lt. Col. Seth Barun, Cyber/Mission Command branch chief at NCNG Joint Force Headquarters (JFHQ).

During "Super Tuesday," CSRF members work at JFHQ and at the North Carolina State Board of Elections (NCSBOE).

Early morning meetings are dominated by an evaluation of the latest information on threats to the system. Leaders prepare response strategies for different potential threats, including malicious attacks from nations and groups hostile to the United States.

Since 2018, the CSRF has responded to more than 35 cyber incidents in North Carolina and other states.

"When hackers attack, our response force acts quickly," said Lt. Col. Robbie Felicio, NCNG's chief information officer. "When called upon, our team can be on the scene in a few hours and we work directly with the entity that is in charge of the event."

The NCNG personnel at the Board of Elections building coordinate with North Carolina Emergency Management and Board of Elections staff and test equipment at their operations center.

Members of the team have expertise in prevention, assessment, response and forensics – figuring out how an attack occurred.

Each cyberattack is different, requiring a unique response. Most of these cyber specialists have years of civilian experience at major tech firms. Some have decades of military service, and a few are college students learning the most up-to-date techniques in an ever-changing cyber domain.

"The team provides a unique and broad skill set that allows our team to utilize existing tools to provide additional oversight on the (NCSBOE) network," said Barun.

Examples include Spc. Azaria Christian, a signal support systems specialist with the 505th Engineer Battalion and student at Cleveland Community College in Shelby, and Chief Master Sgt. Randy Conner, a 20-year veteran with the 263rd Combat Communications Squadron.

"I learn a lot from them (the younger Soldiers); they bring skill sets from outside the military and it helps me learn," said Conner. "You can teach an old dog new tricks."

Conner's team has more than 50 years of combined civilian and cyber experience protecting data systems from attack.

"Cyber really grabbed my attention," Christian said. "I can be a full-time student, serve my state and nation and teach fellow students what I learned," said Christian.