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Recruiting for the Cyber Wars

Recruiting for the Cyber Wars

Uncle Sam wants you - to help defend against Internet threats. But is the military any place for slackers and hackers?

Keith Epstein and Brian Grow | BusinessWeek.com

The U.S. military is looking for a few good geeks. “This building will be attacked 3 million times today,” announces the commentator as the Pentagon appears on an ad available on the popular video site YouTube. “Who is going to protect it? Meet Staff Sergeant Lee Jones, Air Force Cyber Command, a member of America’s only cyber command protecting us from millions of cyber threats every day.”

The YouTube recruitment video is part of a high-profile ad campaign running on TV, in print, and on the Web. In the ads, the Air Force boasts of its ability to protect the nation from a potentially devastating cyber attack. The ads overstate just how protected the U.S. military’s networks are, but they underscore a new sense of urgency: As computer networks play increasingly vital roles in the U.S. military – and expose it to new dangers from skilled information warriors trained by other nations – the U.S. needs a new type of 21st century soldier.

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“How do you tap into the intellect of a completely different kind of Air Force warrior?” asks General William T. Lord, the chief of the nascent Air Force Cyber Command – the military’s newest unit fighting digital warfare.

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General Lord thinks the answer may be to encourage U.S. hackers to enlist. In an interview with techie forum Slashdot in early March, he was asked if hackers with checkered pasts, and overweight geeks who couldn’t pass a physical training test, were candidates to join the growing ranks of cyber soldiers. “I believe even the most unlikely candidate, when working for a cause bigger than himself, turns out to be a most loyal ally,” the general wrote.

The next James Bond or GI Jane may well be a hacker – routinely peering and probing computer networks to further his country’s industrial or military edge. Instead of tense confrontations and close calls in far-off places, the digital warrior will telecommute. Simply tapping at a keyboard, she’ll connect with electronic moles that will pass on gigabytes of valuable data stored in the networks of prime targets half a world away.

Using the Internet is less risky and exponentially more efficient, and, given some due diligence, cunning, and a knack for social engineering, the path leads to just about any computer’s soft interior.

The Air Force Cyber Command is still a work-in-progress. Pentagon officials are still wrangling over which U.S. military base will be home to the Command, which is not expected to be fully operational until October 2009. Once the project is complete, Cyber Command is expected to employ as many as 500 Air Force staff, says Gen. Lord, whose unit is currently headquartered at Barksdale Air Force Base outside Shreveport, La.

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Regions where collection efforts originated or the anticipated end user of the targeted technology. The associated percentages indicate the level of collection reported in 2005.

A visit to the embryonic Air Force Cyber Command at Barksdale by BusinessWeek reporters in March shows how the Air Force’s current ad campaign is more a Hollywood-version of Cyber Command. In an aging former recreation building on Barksdale’s leafy grounds, fatigue-clad airmen – some with the physiques of couch-potato hackers – use off-the-shelf PCs to monitor Air Force computer network traffic. A wall of projection screens – reading “Unclassified” on a bright green background on the day BusinessWeek arrived – is used to highlight alerts about suspicious network traffic.


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