Every year for the reserves, naval personnel has to go on what is known as an AT, or annual training. These trips can last for as little as two weeks to almost a full year. Either way, it’s good work and it keeps service members updated on their roles in the military.
I’m part of a reserve unit known as Naval Support Activity Naples, Detachment 106 Chicago. As an Information Systems Technician, my main role over at NSA Naples is to manage network systems and to operate general computer equipment wherever necessary. NSA Naples is not based in Florida, but it is based in Naples, Italy. If you can guess, every year I get to go to Italy to perform my AT. The work is a lot of fun and I get a lot of leave time to explore the city and Italy as a whole. More on that later. This last summer was my first year at Naples, so it was a unique experience to say the least.
The first day I arrived there, I reported to N6, also known as Information Systems. The shop was 100% government contractors, and all of them were pretty damn chill. The work was cake as well; I would go and DRMO equipment (basically take them apart and recycle them) and log them in a excel spreadsheet. It’s a bit below my ability level, but I’m not complaining. I’m getting paid for this.
A few days go by of doing that, and we are notified that in a few weeks, the base will be inspected by other government agencies to look for network vulnerabilities. In preparation for this inspection, the government contractors and I would do an in-house inspection to make sure that we don’t fail the big inspection. Did I mention that we’re doing an inspection?
What we went out to do is known as a CCRI or a Command Cyber Readiness Inspection. It was a team of about 5 government contractors on base, and myself. We began on Wednesday of the same week and we scoured every single nook and cranny of the entire base. We hit every building, logging every system that could be programmed, and checking if anyone had brought network enabled devices like Amazon Alexas or Google Homes from home (which is a big no-no in a secured network environment). We didn’t run into too many problems until we found a classified network vulnerability.
If there is classified information running through an optical cable or an Ethernet cable, it has to be secured by a metal pipe. In this case, they definitely were. However, there’s another rule with this; every 10 feet of piping, there must be a box with a lock so you can access the wiring. Well, in this specific building, there was no such lock. That got locked up real quick. There were a few network vulnerabilities that required a metal saw to chop off the metal piping and redirect it elsewhere. We had to get rid of a few Amazon Alexas and bluetooth keyboards, and there was a lot of logging equipment. I mean, a LOT of logging equipment. These inspections went on for many days.
After a long week of just doing CCRI, I took a trip to the Amalfi Coast with a tour guide. It was an amazing trip. My group and I went along the western coast of Italy hitting cities such as Sorrento and Ravello. We got to stop at these cities and towns and walk around and see the beautiful sights. It was a great weekend to balance out being on base.
In the middle of the day, I received a few unnerving pictures and videos on my phone from one of my buddies who is stationed on our sister base, known as Naval Base Sigonella. A few of the pictures were NVG (night vision goggles) shots of what looked like a riot outside the base. He had a video of rioters throwing bottles over the gate and he had another picture of him and his unit with MOPP gear (protective gear, usually against chemical agents) with tear gas. A huge group of Italians were rioting the base, protesting.
I asked him what was going on. He told me that the MUOS satellite station (what all the fleets use to communicate with each other, there’s four worldwide) was under attack. Some Italians see the US Navy as some kind of boogeyman who burns their villages down, gives everyone cancer, and controls the weather with the satellites. Seemed crazy to me.
I hoped that my friend would be alright. Luckily, it was a small riot and it was uplifted in only a day or so. It made me think about it; I was doing cyber security inspections, where in some bases around the world, there was some true action going around. Not always black and white, I think about what I serve for and what it is like to have conflict around the globe. This was a very minor incident in the grand scheme of things, but it definitely made me reflect on what line of work I am part of, and what could potentially set the stage for the future.
– Matt Cuartero