North Dakotan with university ties leads nation’s top cyber defense team
When North Dakotans cross paths outside the state, history is sure to take notice.
Such was the case recently when Zane Markel, a Minot High School (Magic City campus) graduate and current midshipman graduating May 22 from the U.S. Naval Academy, took his team to victory and White House recognition. According to Zane, the victory was a result of his team’s tremendous efforts. According to his father Paul, a Minot State University professor of psychology and interim dean of the College of Education and Health Sciences, it was due to a lifetime of hard work and diligent studies.
And, he may have had some guidance in the past two years from a mentor and fellow North Dakotan who was serving as the deputy director of the Center for Cyber Security Studies and is coming into a position where even more students can be positively affected – incoming North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott.
The victory came for Zane’s group in an annual Cyber Defense Exercise (CDX) that puts students to task in a competition against teams from other services and the intelligence community. According to Zane, his team had to design, build and defend a physical network capable of withstanding digital intrusion from the “Red Cell” hacker team made up of computer security experts with the National Security Agency/Central Security Services.
By the end of the four-day exercise, Zane’s team from the Naval Academy had kept the integrity of their network the longest, and they’d repelled intrusions the fastest. The 20-midshipmen team beat their counterparts from the U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Air Force Academy, U.S. Coast Guard Academy, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Air Force Institute of Technology and Royal Military College of Canada.
The exercise proved a milestone for a student whose focus was matched only by his longtime drive.
Paul stated that Zane had always been the type of young man who had a strong idea of what direction he wanted to go, and what experiences to pursue. After completing service with the Civil Air Patrol and a brief summer stint at Camp Grafton, Zane’s mind was made up about military service. A principal appointment to the Naval Academy by U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad solidified his choice of higher education, which had come down to being between the respected school at Annapolis and the computer science program at the University of Minnesota.
He added that his path to through the USNA was helped forward by his early curiosity in math and ability to take on hard topics through and through. Paul provided one example of Zane taking computer programming projects on his own even while going through high school, in addition to taking on a third-level calculus class that wasn’t offered as a traditional class.
“He convinced two classmates to do it with him,” Paul said. “He persevered and was able to test out of that third-year calculus. That’s always been Zane. He’s disciplined, he’s persistent. He sets a goal and works steady toward it. I wish I had half his energy and half his tenacity – he would move toward his goal like a steady locomotive.”
Zane said he felt the decision to move toward cyber studies was pragmatic. He’d always been drawn to both math and while theoretical applications interested him, he felt more of a draw to the practical applications of mathematics through computer science.
“I thought that, essentially, I would have the opportunity to do more things with math,” he said. “Once I got to the Navy I got the impression that cyber security would be a big growth area.”
He couldn’t have been more right. While the CDX has been going on for about 15 years, the military – and Navy in particular – have been growing closer to digital studies and implementing more policy through that time. Newly-commissioned officers in the Navy typically had four career tracks to go down after graduating from the academy: below the sea (submariner), on the sea (surface fleet), above the sea (aviation), or anywhere the sea touched (special warfare). A fifth option recently become available that will take new officers through an ocean of ether: Information Warfare.
When he graduates, Zane will be one of the first officers commissioned down that track. His commission will come after a lot of work after his interest in the subject sprouted from a class during his freshman year as a Naval Academy plebe.
“The moment that really did it was when I took the cyber security course at USNA and did some hacking-type stuff,” Zane said. “Before that I was pretty lukewarm about it because I wasn’t sure how it would stop the bad hackers out there. After that class my viewpoint changed.”
By March of that year he’d declared his major and from there it was a lot of work with the fundamentals of computing: programming, networking, security.
“You start with the theory of how computers work, how programming works, how networks work,” Zane explained. “Then you move into security and how things tie together. I think that makes a big difference over being a self-educated hacker in high school. That word usually has a derogatory connotation. My information warfare group is full of hackers, you could say, who aren’t interested in stealing people’s credit card information. We’re interested in offense and defense, to keep information safe.”
The CDX was a defensive exercise, designed to test each team’s ability to monitor their networks and their understanding of how each network or local service was supposed to function.
Knowing how to guard against a good offense required knowing what a good offense looked like. To be fully prepared, the team started getting ready in January. They designed their network, hosted a website, offered an email service and complied with other tasks the competition required. Then they divided themselves up into teams with specialties and trained for the spring semester.
“NSA has offensive hackers – Red Cell –who hacked into competitor’s networks,” Zane said. “You win by keeping them out and then kicking them out the fastest when they do get in. This year we were the fastest at kicking out the bad guys.”
The team was able to travel to the White House for the recognition by President Barack Obama, who congratulated their successful efforts. Later, they met with members of the National Security Council for a discussion surrounding cyber security.
Capt. Paul J. Tortora, USNA Center for Cyber Security Studies director, stated that members of the group were ecstatic to have had the opportunity to be recognized for their accomplishment.
“The fact that the president is highlighting this for the first time in the 10-year competition’s history is great for the program, the midshipmen, and the Naval Academy,” Tortora said in a news release.
Additionally, the team met with Adm. Michael S. Rogers, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command and director of the NSA. Rogers presented the CDX trophy to the team during a ceremony last week.
The wealth of career-shaping experiences was helped along, Zane said, by his interactions with Hagerott since they met during Zane’s junior year at the academy. Early on, Zane made use of Hagerott’s mentorship.
“He was one of the foremost experts on cyber security at the USNA,” Zane said. “I talked with him about the future of cyber security and that was incredibly valuable to me. I began talking with him more regularly and his office was right next to our war room, so this semester I saw him daily.”
Although Hagerott and Zane spoke on a wealth of topics, one that stood out was guidance Hagerott provided Zane for a speech he gave at a conference this past spring on the future of warfare. Sponsored by the New America Foundation, it delved into topics such on how global events and new technology could change how war was conducted. Markel was invited to speak on the next generation of cyberwar.
“He was instrumental in my ability to give that speech,” Zane said. “It was through Dr. Hagerott that I learned about the opportunity to give it… They brought in a lot of academics and a lot of generals. I think they wanted to bring in a new officer who would represent the future of warfare.
They asked me to come in and give my perspective on cyber security, and the future of cyber warfare.
“I did a lot of brainstorming and bounced a lot of ideas off him,” Zane continued. “He watched me practice and I couldn’t have given the presentation as I did without him.”
Paul noted the conference included quite the lineup, including U.S. Sen. John McCain, Jim Sciutto and Wolf Blitzer from CNN, and U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, among many other distinguished panelists and speakers.
“Here comes Zane to speak to the same group from the perspective of a cyber warrior,” Paul said. “I know Dr. Hagerott helped him polish that speech and the 10-minute presentation. It gives you a real sense of what they’ve been working on at the Naval Academy.”
Hagerott noted that it was his distinct pleasure to be able to offer guidance to the young leader.
“When I first met Zane I could already see his potential being fulfilled,” Hagerott said. “The combination of his drive, natural talent and ability to manage teammates and foster their skills will prove him to be markedly successful in all his future pursuits. To be sure, Midshipman Markel was already on that path when we met, I was only able to offer him some advice along the way.”
Zane stated that the mentorship had helped him greatly.
“Dr. Hagerott has profoundly influenced my ideas and on the relationship between security and warfare,” Zane said. “Some people have the attitude that technology is always better and you don’t have to focus on the social side. In all my interactions with Dr. Hagerott I understand that that is not the case. Technology is just tools, and attention needs to be paid to how it’s used. He’s given me a lot of advice for my career as well. I think I would be significantly less well off without his advice.”
“I’d heard considerable things about ‘Professor Hagerott’ through the past two years,” Paul said. “Even though my son hasn’t formally taken a class from Dr. Hagerott, he’s had what’s referred to as student engagement outside the classroom. Hagerott has been a considerable mentor for Zane – giving him advice, sending him articles, Powerpoint presentations on cyber security, and having discussions where they sat down and talked about research into the state-of-the-art.”
He was hopeful that the CDX win would be a boon to his teammates, who’d done a huge amount of work.
“I think this would be great if it paved the way for our team members,” he noted. “This sort of thing really turns people’s heads. Hopefully people of future years will benefit. I’m grateful for the opportunity to make an influence, and that I’m going to be part of the class that helps set the precedent for how career profession would work in this community. It’s really exciting to be here and make a difference.”
And a difference this North Dakota native is likely to make. Upon graduating Zane will do temp work for the summer before starting in the MIT master’s program on Technology Policy.