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U.S. building virtual Internet as cyberattack testbed

In a project led by DARPA, the U.S. government is creating its own virtual version of the Internet to test and strengthen the nation's defenses against cyberattacks.

The U.S. is creating a virtual version of the Internet--this one designed as a testbed to help the nation hone its defenses against cyberattacks, according to Reuters and other sources.

Known as the National Cyber Range, the virtual testbed would be set up by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the same agency that kicked off the Internet itself more than 40 years ago. The new simulated mini-Internet would give Washington the opportunity to carry out virtual cyberwarfare games as a way of testing different scenarios and technologies in response to cyberattacks.

To work on the initial development phase of the new system, defense contractor Lockheed Martin was awarded a $5.4 million contract by DARPA in early 2009. The company has provided its own team of cybertechnology experts to work with DARPA on building the test range. Ironically, Lockheed itself was recently the victim of a cyberattack by hackers who used duplicates of SecurID electronic keys to breach network security.

Another organization involved in the National Cyber Range is Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, which received a $24.7 million contract in early 2010. The lab has been working on the second phase of the project to build and analyze different prototype ranges for the system.

This summer, DARPA will reportedly choose one of the two to operate a prototype of the system over the course of the next year.

One of the goals behind the National Cyber Range will be to create a system of networks and computers that can be rebooted after each simulation so the government can quickly test different cyberattack scenarios. With its cost estimated at $130 million, the system is expected to be operational by the middle of next year, Reuters said.

DARPA did not immediately return CNET's request for comment.

Recent reports revealed that the U.S. would consider a cyberattack an act of war, potentially inviting a response using conventional military weapons.