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An exclusive look inside DARPA's plan to visualize cyberoperations

The Pentagon's advanced research wing plans to spend $125 million on Plan X, a virtual-reality system for US cyber warriors to see attacks coming over networks and more quickly fight against them.

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    This is a graphical representation of elements of a cyber operation on Plan X – its individual components, capabilities, and placement on a network.
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This is an excerpt of a story from Passcode, the Monitor's new section on security and privacy. Read the full article – and see the exclusive photos – here.

Unlike soldiers on battlefield overseas, US cyber warriors do not hear the sound of an attack coming. They will not see their opponents in the flesh. They will not die because they were in their line of fire.

Instead, they spend long hours hunkered over computers, analyzing code, trying to detect breaches – a laborious process that requires advanced engineering skills. Though their networks are scanned up to millions of times every day, there is no alarm system that triggers when an enemy hacker crosses a virtual tripwire to breach their network. There’s no virtual explosion if they destroy the data inside.

The Pentagon's research arm wants to change this. With a project called Plan X, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is building what could one day become a virtual reality that gives cyber warriors "instantaneous knowledge of the fact that [their] network is being attacked," says its program manager Frank Pound.

Slated to cost around $125 million over four years, Plan X marks the first major attempt of its kind to create an actual online battle space and would fundamentally shift the way the military operates on the virtual battlefield.

Simply moving a hand across a flat, touchscreen monitor could allow a user to analyze the health of the entire network or find rogue computers that are not supposed to be connected. Attacks would be translated into rich display graphics and 3-D visualizations so it's impossible to miss them as they happen. Military specialists could defend against them by literally dragging blocks of code from a virtual shelf or marketplace similar to Apple’s App Store onto their network. They may one day even use the Oculus Rift, a 3-D video-gaming headset, to launch these operations in a fully immersive virtual reality.

Here is why this is a big deal: The military has said that protecting its networks from computer attacks is just as important as defending the country's air, land, sea, and space. The Director of National Intelligence has listed a potential compromise of online systems and theft of information as the No. 1 threat to US national security – more than terrorist groups or weapons of mass destruction. US military superiority, as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey said recently, does not carry over into cyberspace. It may have superior weapons and technology, but the asymmetrical nature of cyberconflict means increasingly sophisticated attackers will always have the upper hand against the defenders.

A program such as Plan X would also speed up the military’s cyberoperations. With it, researchers expect it to take up to 72 hours to write, test, and deploy a mission – a process that, at this time, sometimes takes months.

This is an excerpt of a story from Passcode, the Monitor's new section on security and privacy. Read the full article – and see the exclusive photos – here.

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