Government hankers for hackers
Aug 2, 2011, 10:57 a.m.
By Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The National Security Agency has a challenge for hackers who think they're hot stuff: prove it by working on the "hardest problems on Earth."
Computer hacker skills are in great demand in the U.S. government to fight the cyber wars that pose a growing national security threat -- and they are in short supply.
For that very reason an alphabet soup of federal agencies -- DOD, DHS, NASA, NSA -- are descending on Las Vegas this week for Defcon, an annual hacker convention where the $150 entrance fee is cash only -- no registration, no credit cards, no names taken. Attendance is expected to top 10,000.
The National Security Agency is among the keen suitors. The spy agency plays both offense and defense in the cyber wars. It conducts electronic eavesdropping on adversaries and protects U.S. computer networks that hold super secret material -- a prize target for America's enemies.
"Today it's cyber warriors that we're looking for, not rocket scientists," said Richard "Dickie" George, technical director of the NSA's Information Assurance Directorate, the agency's cyber-defense side.
"That's the race that we're in today. And we need the best and brightest to be ready to take on this cyber warrior status," he told Reuters in an interview.
The NSA is hiring about 1,500 people in the fiscal year which ends September 30 and another 1,500 next year, most of them cyber experts. With a workforce of just over 30,000, the Fort Meade, Maryland-based NSA dwarfs other intelligence agencies, including the CIA.
It also engages in cyber-spying and other offensive operations, something it rarely, if ever, discusses publicly.
But at Defcon, the NSA and other "Feds" will be competing with corporations looking for hacking talent too.
The NSA needs cyber security experts to harden networks, defend them with updates, do "penetration testing" to find security holes and watch for any signs of cyber attacks.
The NSA is expanding its fold of hackers, but George said there is a shortage of those skills. "We are straining to hire the people that we need."
MISFITS OR FIT-INS?
It might seem to be an odd-couple fit -- strait-laced government types with their rules and missions trying to recruit hackers who by definition want to defy authorities.
George said the NSA is actually an environment where the hacker mindset fits right in to work with "a critical mass of people that are just like them."
But what about culture rifts?
"When I walk down the hall there are people that I see every day and I never know what color their hair's going to be," George said. "And it's a bonus if they're wearing shoes. We've been in some sense a collection of geeks for a long, long time."
The agency has long been known for its brilliant, but sometimes eccentric, mathematicians and linguists.
Jeff Moss, a hacker known as Dark Tangent, knows something about bridging the two worlds. He founded Defcon and the companion Black Hat conference for security professionals and is now a member of the Department of Homeland Security's Advisory Council, which advises the government on cyber security.