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To fight future cyberbattles, Air Force recruiting part-time geeks

The Air National Guard is drawing from Microsoft, Cisco, and other high-tech firms.

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The command is still searching for a permanent home but should be fully operational by October, according to Maj. Gen. William Lord, AFCYBER’s provisional commander.

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The Air Force’s new emphasis on cyberwarfare is raising questions abroad. What happens if the US moves from defensive measures – protecting the Pentagon’s website from hackers, for example – to offensive operations aimed at foreign websites?

The Air Force is already hinting that it may engage in offensive actions.

“The pervasive nature of pro-jihad Web sites represents a tangible and highly visible example of how our adversaries use elements of cyberspace against us,” wrote Wynne in his recent article. “We cannot allow our adversaries to operate freely there.”

Such computer attacks can be extremely damaging. A series of cyberattacks against Estonia a year ago flooded scores of critical government and commercial websites, making them inaccessible for several days at a time.

US may have cyberwarfare advantage
The military’s new focus on recruiting America’s information-technology professionals, who build some of the world’s most popular hardware and software, is also troubling to foreign nations.

They worry that cyberwarriors from, say, Cisco could use their inside knowledge of the company’s widely used routers and switches to help bring them down in a foreign country. Military recruits from Microsoft with insider knowledge of serious vulnerabilities in the software could give the United States a decided advantage and prove devastating to the target country, says Robert Masse, a self-described reformed hacker who founded Montreal-based computer-security firm GoSecure.

Some countries – notably China – have voiced concerns that Microsoft might pack “back doors” or hidden openings into its software that a US-based insider could exploit. In an effort to curb distrust, in 2003 Microsoft signed a pact with NATO as well as China, Russia, the United Kingdom, and other nations to let them see the source code of its Windows operating system.

But the company is mum on whether it sees ethical problems in its engineers working part time for a military unit dedicated to hacking its products.

“Microsoft does not hold specifics about employees that are supporting the 262nd” Information Warfare Aggressor Squadron, says a Microsoft spokeswoman. “So to this end, there really is no comment on the types of work they are doing.” Cisco and Adobe declined to comment.

Some information-warfare experts praise the Air Force efforts.

“The whole idea of an offensive information-warfare unit, particularly a computer network attack unit, is to build capabilities for possible exploitation down the road,” says Richard Forno, a cybersecurity consultant based in Washington and author of “The Art of Information Warfare.” “It just so happens the US is lucky that the companies building the world’s most popular and widely used IT products are based in the United States.”