June 1, 2009

Defense Industry To Reap Benefits Of Federal Cyber-Defense

The recent renewal of the U.S. government's interest in cyber-warfare has triggered a frenzy of activity amongst the nation's biggest military companies, all vying for the billions of dollars worth of new defense contracts.

The combination of intriguing government work and hard economic times is allowing companies to attract some of the country's most brilliant young talent, who just a few years ago would have been far likelier to take a position in the Silicon Valley.  The new arms race of the twenty-first century "” developing weapons to attack and defend sensitive government computer systems "” has caused a crop of new "hacker soldiers" to sprout up within the Pentagon.

Most major military companies, such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and General Dynamics, already have multi-billion-dollar cyber defense contracts with one or multiple U.S. defense and intelligence agencies.

The companies have had to act quickly to snatch up the relatively sparse number of top cyber experts with the savvy and creativity needed to design computer defenses and counterattacks.  They have bought up smaller firms, funded academic research at universities and run flashy advertisements for "cyber-ninjas" in attempts to find and attract the best of the best.

In highly classified computer labs across the country, 20-something  year old computer nerds like to joke that they're just hackers with security clearances.

At Raytheon's headquarters just south of the Kennedy Space Center, dozens of the sharpest computer whizzes in the world are encouraged to ingenuity by the promise of prizes like cappuccino machines and piles of cash.

These cyber soldiers represent the front line of the new war that President Obama on Friday called "one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation." 

The president has stated that he will appoint a senior White House official to oversee the country's cyber-defense systems.

Experts say that the U.S. has lagged behind in recent years in its efforts to secure and defend sensitive computer systems that are increasingly coming under attack from sophisticated hackers around the world.  Every day, thousands of attempts are made to hack into government networks, some from solo hackers, but many originating from rival governments like Russia and China.

"Everybody's attacking everybody," according to Scott Chase, a 30-year-old computer engineer with Raytheon.

Daniel D. Allen, one of the chiefs in charge of intelligence systems for another defense contractor, Northrop Grumman, estimated that the federal government is now spending some $10 billion a year solely on cyber security projects.  Though this represents only a tiny fraction of the entire defense budget, industry experts say this number is expected to rise dramatically in the coming years.

As a sign of the changing times, contracts for research and development of cyber-weapons, the very existence of which were considered top-secret 20 years ago, are now bid on and awarded publicly to private defense companies.  A number of these companies have recently been joining forces to build a model version of the Internet known as the National Cyber Range to be used as digital testing ground for new developments.

Industry experts say that teams from Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and Raytheon are leading the surge in the development of new cyber-warfare tactics that aim to find and exploit vulnerabilities in other countries' computer systems.

A member of the Raytheon team explained that a large part of the work involves developing new types of "honey pots" "” a sort of cyber sting operation that is used to lure prowling hackers into fake Pentagon websites, where their own codes can then be captured.

"It takes a nonconformist to excel at what we do," said Mr. Gillette of the Raytheon unit.

Raytheon, which permits interviews with employees on the condition that their names not be used, discovered one of their top young workers after he had won two hacking contests and decided to drop out of college.

"I always approach it like a game, and it's been fun," said the 22-year old whiz kid.

Joel Harding, an analyst for SAIC, a large military contractor focusing on computer application, is a 20-year veteran of the military intelligence community.  As part of one of the earliest intelligence units assigned to work on government-sponsored hacker programs, he has been witness to a sea change in the significance of computer defense.

Harding estimates that there are currently somewhere between 3,000 to 5,000 information operations specialists working in the U.S. intelligence community and another 50,000 to 70,000 cyber soldiers involved in general computer operations.  After taking into account specialists in other related areas, he says the total number of information operations personnel may be nearly 90,000.


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