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Defending Against Attacks: Huntsville exercise helps city prepare for cyber assault

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) -  A room of quiet conversation and cups of coffee gets more intense the closer you look. You'll catch a glimpse of a holstered gun. You see red placards with things like "FBI" written on them in bold letters.

It's a simulation of a crisis in Huntsville.

Cyber Huntsville Board Member Shane Hammett explains, "We tried to simulate a civil unrest type of environment around an actual social gathering weekend event."

The simulation brings together people of all kinds of emergency agencies, including the media, to carry out a mock response; in this case, to a cyber attack.

We don't want to give you too many details of the exact scenario. As participants and members of the community, we don't want to expose any vulnerabilities the exercise hopes to identify.

But in one interesting twist, attackers got control of a few traffic lights, which sent a number of agencies into action, including Huntsville Police.

HPD Spokesperson Lt. Stacy Bates says, "These kind of exercises are always good, because it gives us an opportunity to get outside of the city agencies that we would normally work with and help develop and strengthen those partnerships that we already have with other agencies."

We can tell you this exercise centered around a protest, a civil unrest situation -- not violent extremism from abroad.

That's, in part, for simplicity's sake.

"In many situations," Hammett notes, "you get into very sensitive information. You get into intelligence type of information, and so that limits who can see that data."

To avoid endless discussions about clearance level on intel, they came at it from a domestic dissident perspective.

That different situation can add something unique, anyway.

For example, Lt. Bates adds, "Any time that you can add different variables to a scenario, it's great, because from our side of the fence, it makes you have to do more critical thinking, more critical decision-making."

"Again, we're not exposing where we excel and where we need work, but as for an overall assessment," Hammett says, "I would give us a B+. There's certainly areas to improve both from exercise planning as well as policy, which we expected."

They plan to test those improvements again next year.