The National Security Agency has a challenge for hackers who think they are hot stuff: Prove it by working on the “hardest problems on Earth.”
Computer hacker skills are in great demand in the US 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 US$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 (NSA) 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 US computer networks that hold super-secret material — a prize target for the US’ 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 cyberdefense 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 said in an interview.
The NSA is hiring about 1,500 people in the fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30 and another 1,500 next year, most of them cyberexperts. 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 cyberspying and other offensive operations, something it rarely, if ever, discusses publicly.
However, 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,” he said.
It might seem to be an odd--couple fit — straitlaced 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.”
However, 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 US Department of Homeland Security’s Advisory Council, which advises the government on cyber security.
“They need people with the hacker skill set, hacker mind-set. It’s not like you go to a hacker university and get blessed with a badge that says you’re a hacker. It’s a self-appointed label — you think like one or you don’t,” Moss said.
He drew a distinction between hackers with skills and computer criminals. Of the latter, he says with a laugh: “It would not be good to let them in your front door.”