NATO-linked center to hold ‘live-fire’ cyber defense exercises as war rages

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A cyber organization accredited by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will conduct what it bills as the largest and most complex “live-fire” cyber defense exercises in the world beginning on Tuesday.

The NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence, which is based in Estonia, said the annual event, called Locked Shields, is intended to boost the skills of cybersecurity experts defending national IT systems and critical infrastructure under real-time attacks.

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The participants are deployed to assist a fictional country handle a large-scale cyberattack. More than 2,000 people from 32 nations, including Ukraine, are expected to be involved.

This year’s Locked Shields event comes amid the ongoing war in Ukraine, in which hacking has had a constant, if relatively muted, role in Russia’s invasion.

Russian state-sponsored hackers have been accused of attacking Ukrainian government agencies and attempted to breach the power grid.

Ukrainian companies have also been subject to regular cyberattacks, according to government officials.

Ukraine’s government, meanwhile, has helped organize a group of hacktivists that have waged cyberattacks in Russia.

But concerns about cyberattacks have spread well beyond the war zone, too. Finland reported an attack on government websites earlier this month, just as speculation mounted that the Nordic nation may apply for NATO membership. And US President Joe Biden has warned US businesses to prepare for retaliatory cyberattacks as a response to sanctions imposed against Russia.

Among the participants this year will be five to 10 large financial institutions, including Mastercard Inc. and Banco Santander SA, according to the Financial Services

Information Sharing and Analysis Center, or FS-ISAC, which helped design the virtual systems to look realistic and the simulated attacks on the sector.

“By working with other organizations in a protected setting, like Locked Shields, we are able to glean insights into what others are doing and learn firsthand what is, or isn’t, working, said Ron Green,” Mastercard’s chief security officer, in a statement provided to Bloomberg News.

“This also opens the door for deeper discussions about process and technology improvements each participant can make to enhance our overall cybersecurity.”

Steven Silberstein, FS-ISAC’s chief executive officer, said such exercises have been helpful to the financial sector in year’s past, helping to plan against major cyberattacks and even with pandemic preparedness.

They are valuable in helping cyber professionals with muscle memory -- using playbooks in close-to-real-life situations -- and with learning where you have issues with defense and resiliency, he said.

The NATO exercise is especially instructive because of its scale and global reach, and it highlights the interdependency between the finance and other sectors, Silberstein said.

The exercises run through Friday. The center is one of more than two dozen centers for excellence, international military organizations that train and educate leaders and specialists from NATO members and partner countries.

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