With computer technology rocketing along, unforeseen opportunities for progress emerge, but so do new vulnerabilities. Hackers are wreaking havoc from isolated PC's, leaving behind a technical trail of destruction that can wipe out banking records or disrupt air traffic control communications. Some have even been known to immobilize entire military installations, both in the U.S. and abroad.
With computer programs worldwide under attack, the growing need for protecting the nation's computer information is being noted at the highest levels of government. In a January 1999 speech at the National Academy of Sciences President Clinton said, "Terrorists and outlaw states are extending the world's fields of battle, from physical space to cyberspace."
To contend on that field of battle, the President recently decided to fight fire with fire -- by pitting hackers against hackers. A hacker being someone who is not necessarily a computer expert with malicious intent, but simply a computer expert.
"Terrorists and outlaw states are extending the world's fields of battle, from physical space to cyberspace."
Jan. 1999 speech at the National Academy of Sciences
Mr. Clinton's answer -- the Federal Cyber Service, a proposed program that would focus on recruiting college students, by offering scholarships and other incentives, to work in information assurance, which is a field that focuses on protecting computer systems from outside attacks and tracking down infiltrators.
Undergrads who qualify for the Cyber Service program would be eligible for money for tuition and books as well as summer jobs, in return for a course load reflecting an emphasis on information assurance. After school, tentative plans for the proposal have graduates of the program working two years to pay back every one year of their government scholarship.
Shirley Malia works for the federal government in the Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office, which oversees the Federal Cyber Service proposal. She says college campuses are fertile recruiting grounds for the program.
"Students are extremely aware of information technology," says Malia, who believes there is a definite need for hackers in many sectors of the federal government. "When it comes to information assurance, the Department of Defense has needs, law enforcement has needs. ...The treasury has a main need, labor has a need."
And the needs are real. During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, a group of Dutch hackers were able to infiltrate Defense Department computers and access information about American troop movements. The group tried to sell the information to Iraq, but government officials there thought the offer was a hoax.
Graduates of the Cyber Service program may or may not face situations of global importance, but they would have opportunities to work for a variety of government agencies in a variety of positions, ranging from research and development team members at the department of Energy -- to encryption experts at the Department of Defense. Each student's particular skills and interests would be gauged before they are assigned to a specific department.
Students would also be assigned mentors in the field of information assurance who could help in guiding them down the right path. If the program receives congressional approval, the first students would likely be in the classroom by January 2001.
Brandon Switzner is a computer science major at the University of Missouri-Rolla who says he knew computer science majors were in high demand, but has never heard of the Federal Cyber Service. He believes the program would offer some advantages but the possibilities of battling cyber terrorists won't lure him away from corporate America.
"[The Cyber Service] sounds good. I would think about it before the military. ...But I'm not that interested in working for government right now. I'm probably looking for something more in the private sector," says Switzner.
The private sector also has a need to keep their computer information protected as well.
Companies like @Stake, a computer security firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have enlisted the skills of a cadre of hackers known as L0pht (pronounced Loft) to help them with security issues. The group of hackers now comprises @Stake's research and development team.
"We're not even a month old and we'll be at an MIT career fair next month and that will be the beginning of a long term strategy. ...Recruiting is crucial, not something we take casually."
@Stake vice president
Ted Julian, the vice president of @Stake says of L0pht, "They're the best, I don't think you could find in one place that many people with that level of talent. ...For the past eight years they've served as a watch dog group working with people to alert them to [security] issues."
Before joining @Stake, L0pht did a little hacking of its own. In order to show companies that they had security flaws, the group would hack into their computers to prove the holes existed -- and that they needed their help.
Members of L0pht even appeared before a Senate committee telling them that they could shut down the Internet. One of its members who goes by the name of Space Rogue says, "Certainly widespread commotion of the world wide Internet would/could be a minimal task."
Even though @Stake seems to be loaded with computer talent, they're still looking for more. Julian says, "We're not even a month old and we'll be at an MIT career fair next month, and that will be the beginning of a long term strategy. ...Recruiting is crucial, not something we take casually."
According to many in government and in the private sector, when it comes to computer security, the stakes are high. If businesses aren't protected against hackers, rival companies or disgruntled employees can cost them millions. And the potential risk on a national scale involves the personal safety of millions. Hackers could be the soldiers of the future and, according to Malia, the need to recruit and train them is, "Important, very important."