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NEWS | July 20, 2020

NSWC Dahlgren Division Engineer Attributes “Hackers-for-Good” to Award Honoring Leadership of NAVSEA Cyber Team

By NSWC Dahlgren Corporate Communications

DAHLGREN, Va. – Derek Howard leads as a pioneer in ensuring a safe and secure Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) cyber domain.

The Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) cybersecurity engineer won the Bernard Smith Award for leading the development, establishment, and implementation of a certified and accredited Red Team capability while enhancing the design, development, fielding, and sustainment of cyber resilient systems throughout NAVSEA.

His efforts resulted in the NAVSEA Cyber Red Team – one of only ten Cyber Red Teams within the Department of Defense. However, Howard – director of the Cyber Red Team – attributes this accomplishment to the talented, and highly motivated team of hackers-for-good at Dahlgren.

“The biggest thing is having the right people,” said Howard. “They’re passionate; they do this stuff before work, after work, on the weekends; they write code on vacation; they are always learning. This is thinking-outside-of-the-box work and it takes a special kind of person to thrive as a Red Team operator.”

Over the last several years, Howard developed a talented new workforce, established the institutional framework, and built the technical capabilities that recently earned the group certification and accreditation from the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command. 

The NAVSEA Cyber Red Team goes to great lengths to realistically simulate the digital threats that the command is likely to face in the field. “We use the intel community to provide current situational awareness of what they (our adversaries) are doing, the types of attacks they are conducting – the tactics, techniques, and procedures – are all validated through intelligence.”

In one example, Howard cites the threat posed by a website “drive-by,” which can be used to hijack a computer by tricking the user into clicking on a malicious link. “If you surf to an infected website, that is where a drive-by can take place while using a vulnerability in your web browser, or if you log into that site, there’s a piece of code that could be dropped to your computer that opens up command and control. This code allows remote code execution, enabling an attacker to have control over your computer.”

That adversarial approach transitions to collaboration when the Cyber Red Team is outside of time-bounded simulations. “We’re not out trying to point fingers at individuals if someone clicked on a phishing email,” he said. “It’s to put the Navy cybersecurity posture on better footing.”

Howard accepted a position at NSWCDD in December 2016 to stand up the NAVSEA Cyber Red Team. His active duty Navy experience, spanning almost 27 years, encompasses service as an enlisted cryptologic technician (maintenance) and as a cryptologic warfare officer.

The Bernard Smith Award was established to recognize those individuals with exceptional and significant technical contributions in engineering or science. In particular, the award recognizes contributions that are accomplished by exceptional persistence and competence in the face of unusual odds or significant opposition. The award was named in honor of Bernard Smith, technical director of the Naval Weapons Laboratory (since renamed NSWCDD) from August 1964 to 1973.

Howard is one of 90 individuals and 39 teams honored with various awards in a special NSWCDD Honor Awards video program that will be released publicly later this month. The video presentation features remarks to awardees and their families by NSWCDD Commanding Officer Capt. Casey Plew, NSWCDD Technical Director John Fiore, and U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman. Check the NSWCDD website for updates:

NSWCDD’s mission is to provide research, development, test and evaluation, analysis, systems engineering, integration and certification of complex naval warfare systems related to surface warfare, strategic systems, combat and weapons systems associated with surface warfare. The command also provides system integration and certification for weapons, combat systems and warfare systems and fulfills other responsibilities assigned by the NSWC commander.