April 19, 2009

U.S. Officials In Need Of A Few Good Hackers

The U.S. Defense Department is looking for a few good men "“ preferably the kind who know how to hack-in to Federal computer networks and wreak havoc on the internet.

Plagued by millions of increasingly sophisticated cyber-attacks every day, federal authorities are seeking to utilize the skills of computer savvy hackers to protect their own computer systems.

Acting as a cyber-liaison for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, General Dynamics Information Technology released an ad on the internet last month saying that they were looking for professional computer hackers who were able to "think like the bad guy."  All applicants must possess an in-depth knowledge of a hacker's tools and tactics and be capable of analyzing Internet traffic to look for weaknesses in the government's computer systems.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates submitted the department's budget proposal to Congress last week in which he requested an increase in the number of cyber-experts trained by the department from 80 to 250 a year by 2011.

Amidst warnings that the U.S. was vulnerable to cyber-attacks, the Obama administration initiated a 60-day study to examine how the government could improve its protection of everything from stock markets, tax records and airline flight systems to electrical grids and nuclear launch codes.

The report was delivered Friday by former Bush aid, Melissa Hathaway.

Despite detailed plans for contingencies like natural disasters and rogue airplanes, the study found the governmental had neither a cohesive strategy for protecting its computer systems from a major coordinated attack, nor a recovery plan should a digital disaster ever occur.

"We're clearly not as prepared as we should be," said David Powner, director of technology issues for the Government Accountability Office, in a statement to Congress last month.

Officials admitted that the government has been slow to catch up with the quickly evolving technological innovations employed by modern-day hackers looking to disrupt the system or steal classified information.  Federal computer networks have thus been left exposed to the attacks of cyber-criminals, both domestic and potentially international.

During a recent hearing in Washing, industry leaders told Congress that law enforcement and other protective agencies are too outdated to protect against the threats from domestic criminals, terrorists and hostile foreign nations.

Following a governmental audit of the computer systems of several major electric companies, federal officials say they discovered nefarious computer programs planted by sophisticated spies that were intended to disrupt service.

In a classified report put together by Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mike Mullen, cyber-threats were listed as a key potential national security risk.  Pentagon officials have reportedly spent over $100 million in the last half year just repairing the damage from cyber-attacks and other network malfunctions.

Vice president at General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems, Nadia Short, says she believes that the government's search for ethical hackers could help to close up a critical loophole in governmental security.

As part of a surveillance program called Einstein that was started by the Bush administration, a crew of analysts keep a constant vigil over federal computer networks.  Einstein is part of the U.S. Computer Emergence Readiness Team (US-CERT), a cooperative effort between the Homeland Security Department, other government agencies and private companies.

In the last couple months, Hathaway has sought to develop a strategy for protecting information networks by talking with hundreds of private industry leaders as well as staffers and experts on Capitol Hill.  She looked for answers to such questions as, how should officials define a "Ëœcyber-incident'; how should the government structure its cyber-oversight; and how can the nation increase security without stymieing innovation.

Leading technology giants like General Dynamics, IBM, Lockheed Martin and Hewlett-Packard Co. have encouraged the Obama administration to create a White House-level office to lead efforts in developing and sharing information on cyber-problems more quickly and efficiently with the private sector.

Washington leaders are beginning to find a consensus on who should direct the overall effort, rejecting earlier suggestions that it be headed by the National Security Agency.  The previous proposal that the project be headed by the NSA was met with stiff opposition by civil liberties groups wary of giving such control to a spy agency.


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