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Hackers needed to save the world — at least America

Mar 02, 20114 mins
Data and Information SecurityHackingInternet Security

A trio of potential nightmares for DHS include cybersecurity, homegrown terrorists and intelligence sharing. Need a job? Sophisticated hackers are needed to fill the cybersecurity gap.

According to current and former Department of Homeland Security officials who gathered to celebrate the eighth anniversary of DHS, a trio of potential nightmares for DHS include cybersecurity, homegrown terrorists and intelligence sharing. Three Homeland Security secretaries, current secretary Janet Napolitano, and former secretaries Tom Ridge (2003 – 2005) and Michael Chertoff (2005 – 2009) held a roundtable discussion at Georgetown.

According to the LA Times, Ridge spoke of technology failing in the realm of airport checkpoints. He mentioned President Kennedy wanting to go to the moon and succeeding within seven years. “It’s 10 years after 9/11 and we still haven’t figured out the right piece of technology in our airports. So apparently it’s easier to go to the moon than come up with a piece of technology to be a little bit less invasive.”

Also according to the LA Times, Stewart Baker, former head of DHS policy, said “The nightmare that the DHS has, is that a very sophisticated hacker, perhaps working for Hezbollah, manages to infiltrate our electric grid and to bring down power to a portion of the United States, not for an hour or two, but for days or weeks. This would create a major humanitarian crisis.”

Napolitano said the biggest issue with technology is the fast pace in which it changes, so DHS is looking toward the 20-something generation to fill the cybersecurity gap.

Government Executive previously reported on the federal government turning to the “underworld of computer cowboys for help shoring up its cyber defenses.” Although the feds attend hacker conferences like Def Con to recruit and fill the “desperate shortage” of people who can create and guard against network threats, most hackers are not too keen on trusting the government. Both sides are of “paranoid” of the other.

NextGov reported that some of the biggest problems with hackers collaborating with Homeland Security involves outdated rules and red tape that restrict private citizens from partnering with the government. Although top hacking talent is needed for U.S. cybersecurity, “members of the hacker community remain wary of working with the government. They know how to find network weaknesses, but might be leery of sharing such talents, if lending a hand requires navigating through too much red tape.”

So hackers are needed to save the world . . . or at least the U.S. But hackers have been hacking for humanity and making the world a better place for years. Through hackathons such as those by Random Hacks of Kindness, which is a joint effort by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, NASA and The World Bank, volunteer hackers and developers have been creating new solutions to respond to disasters.

Yet I wonder if hackers who might be willing to help may additionally be put off by contradictions in the U.S.? In the past, we’ve seen respected security researchers like Moxie Marlinspike, Jacob Appelbaum, and David House end up on watchlists and have their laptops and cellphones searched.

According to Homeland Security Newswire, there are contradictions in U.S. cybersecurity policy as well. Chris Bronk, a fellow of information technology policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, stated, “America wants a secure cyberspace, but its intelligence agencies have found enormous utility in using their own computer hacking capabilities to collect confidential information from foreign adversaries. This raises the question of how the U.S. government can push for global cybersecurity while at the same time using cyber means to collect intelligence on potentially threatening regimes such as Iran.”

There seems to be a long way to go before private security researchers and/or hackers can work together with the federal government without worrying about future repercussions. Hackers, who could do evil but choose not to, can create tools for disaster relief and could undoubtedly create the tools to advance U.S. cybersecurity.

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.