Uncle Sam wants YOU ... to hack the Pentagon

A new Department of Defense initiative will invite hackers to test the vulnerability of the Pentagon's cybersecurity systems.

Jeff Chiu/AP
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter discusses encryption at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Tuesday.

The United States Department of Defense is looking for a few good hackers.

In the first such initiative ever conducted by the federal government, the Pentagon is inviting hackers to test its cybersecurity systems. "Hack the Pentagon," based on similar “cyber bug bounty” programs, will allow vetted outside cybersecurity professionals to perform “vulnerability identification and analysis” on Defense Department websites.

Once the prospective hackers are registered and have undergone background checks, their participation in a “controlled, limited duration program” will have them test department systems.

The initiative, according to a statment from Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook, will not involve hackers’ exposure to “critical, mission-facing systems.” The department currently manages hundreds of Web domains, social media pages, and blogs accessible to the public.

“I am always challenging our people to think outside the five-sided box that is the Pentagon,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said. “Inviting responsible hackers to test our cybersecurity certainly meets that test. I am confident this innovative initiative will strengthen our digital defenses and ultimately enhance our national security.”

The program is aimed to highlight any weaknesses in the Pentagon's cyber infrastructure before malicious or independent hackers could abuse issues with the network. According to the agency, accomplished commercial experts participating in the event could receive “monetary awards and other recognition” for their work.

The Hack the Pentagon contest will be overseen by members of the Defense Digital Service (DDS), a part of the White House’s new US Digital Service that aims to improve and secure the government’s digital infrastructure – including federal websites.

“Bringing in the best talent, technology, and processes from the private sector not only helps us deliver comprehensive, more secure solutions to the DoD, but it also helps us better protect our country,” said DDS Director Chris Lynch.

Mr. Carter and Mr. Lynch have already enlisted tech experts from companies like Google, Palantir, and Shopify to help with Pentagon work.

The announcement of this pilot program comes as the Department of Defense aims to increase its cybersecurity reach, and after President Barack Obama underscored the issue in his newest budget proposal as an important matter of national security.

While most of the department’s budget will be aimed at private or military networks and developing offensive cyber capabilities, keeping domestic systems safe is also a top priority. The department recently announced it would spend $600 million for private contractors' work on systems for a background check agency following a massive government data breach last year. And the department’s Cyber Command has also recently expanded, although its effectiveness has been questioned after frequent setbacks and internal conflicts.

Hack the Pentagon is set to begin in April, and the Department of Defense announced it will release eligibility requirements and general contest rules in the coming weeks.

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