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Desperate DHS hunts for teen recruits at high school hacking competitions

Thursday, October 03, 2013 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: homeland security, computer hacking, national security

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(NaturalNews) The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has turned to high schools in what looks to be an increasingly desperate bid to recruit hackers, as a way to stay a step ahead of competitor nations like China and Russia that routinely target U.S. national security cyber-infrastructure.

In fact, DHS is turning its hunt for young cyber-gurus into a game, of sorts, according to The New York Times, using contests and other competitions to find the best of the best - kind of like college recruiters who are looking for the best athletes. The jury is still out - way out - on whether the strategy will ultimately be successful, however.

Per the Times:

The secretary of [DHS], Janet Napolitano, knows she has a problem that will only worsen. Foreign hackers have been attacking her agency's computer systems. They have also been busy trying to siphon the nation's wealth and steal valuable trade secrets. And they have begun probing the nation's infrastructure - the power grid, and water and transportation systems.

U.S. playing catch up with competitor nations

Napolitano, the paper said, figures she needs about 600 hackers, but many of the best hackers tend to go to work in the private sector or , if they do choose government work, for the National Security Agency, which is headquartered at Ft. Meade, Md.

Also, at DHS, the emphasis is not on hacking, but rather, keeping hackers out.

"We have to show them how cool and exciting this is," Ed Skoudis, a top computer security trainer. "And we have to show them that applying these skills to the public sector is important."

The way to make the recruiting effort more successful, he believes, is to a) start with younger candidates; and b) make recruiting a game or contest.

From BetaBeat:

Security experts in Virginia have created the Governor's Cup Cyber Challenge, in an attempt to funnel talented teens into the public sector. Participants spent the weekend cracking passwords and that sort of thing. It was all meant to lure them into a stint at the agency.

It's a sort of "smack down" for young hackers, the Times explained. But, despite the competitive aspect of it, the sobering reality for these up-and-coming hacking stars is that government work can be unreliable - and not nearly as profitable.

"Everything's slower, there's budget cuts and bureaucracy everywhere and you can't talk about what you do," 17-year-old Arlan Jaska, who developed a hacking program in the eighth grade that wound up spreading to his high school computer system. "It just doesn't seem like as much fun."

Still, the competition does excite - and it does lure young hackers.

The notion of competition actually came from one of the United States' primary competitor nations. China's People's Liberation Army holds challenges every spring, to identify and cultivate its next generation of cyber warriors.

Competing with the private sector

Collin Berman, a classmate of Jaska, likes the "maverick" attitude that the DHS games call for. "I like to break things," he told the Times. "I always want to know, 'How can I change this so it does something else?'"

"You want people who ask: How do things work? But the very best ones turn it around," adds Alan Paller, a security expert and director of research at the SANS Institute, a computer security training organization. "But the very best ones turn it around."

The U.S. government is far behind China in developing programs and competitions to identify young cyber-warriors. And once it does, it still has a long way to go to convince them to choose civil service over corporate America.

This summer, for instance, Berman is considering an internship at Homeland Security. But Jaska is considering one at Northrup Grumman, one of the nation's top defense contractors. Both, the Times said, stated that their "dream job" existed in the private sector.

"The problem with going into the government is you're going to make a lot less," Berman said.

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