Homeland Security seeks student hackers to help counter cyberthreats

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is out to find some 600 'hackers for good,' but sequester cuts are derailing recruiting drives to build a skilled cyber workforce in government.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano speaks at a Monitor Breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. The need to develop a skilled cyber workforce is a formidable challenge for government, she said.

There are “new and rapidly growing threats” of a cyberstrike to the US homeland – perils that will require hundreds of young, college-age hackers to counter an alarming number of daily incursions into the nation’s electrical grid and financial networks, says Department of Homeland Security (DHS) head Janet Napolitano.

This will be “hackers for good,” and the DHS currently has a need for about 600 of them, Secretary Napolitano added in remarks Tuesday at a Monitor Breakfast.

The need to develop a skilled cyber workforce has been a common – and formidable – challenge for a number of US government agencies, including DHS and the Pentagon, which is also struggling to build its own cyber workforce.

That’s because most skilled “cyber warriors,” as the US military calls them, often get recruited by private industry after their service commitments are up.

“That’s a big concern, to be honest,” says Col. Kiley Weigle, commander of the Air Force’s Cyber Training Unit. “We have not, in my opinion, fully cracked that nut yet.”

The Air Force set up an internship program for high school students, who were given security clearances to work in the service’s Cyber Emergency Response Team unit.

But sequestration, which for the Pentagon has come with requirements to cut the number of temporary employees on the payroll, has forced a cancellation of the high school training program for the Air Force.

“I can’t do the internship program anymore,” says Maj. Gen. Suzanne “Zan” Vautrinot, commander of Air Force Network Operations at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, who adds that the service is continuing to work to find ways to “give these kids experience so they can see our forensics.”

At DHS, young hackers – who have not yet entered the job market – potentially “have a bunch of different skill sets” to offer the country, Napolitano says.

“We don’t need PhDs in computer [science]” for many of the jobs they will be called upon to do, she says.

To that end, DHS is launching “a whole host of internships and fellowships for young people to get,” Napolitano adds, noting that the department recently had “over 3,000 kids compete for 60 billets” in one such program.

“We know there’s a market there,” she says.

In a similar vein, the department recently conducted a workforce analysis to “look at what cyber skills we need in our department,” she says.

“What is missing? What are the gaps?”

Napolitano says that one such gap is figuring out how to better coordinate with the National Security Agency, which spearheads many of the nation’s offensive cyber missions.

There is, too, the need to focus on the intersection between the government and the private sector, “because they control most of our nation’s critical infrastructure,” she says, adding that she remains particularly concerned with protecting the nation’s financial and energy sectors.

That said, it’s vital “to scale” the approach to a potential cyberattack, she adds.

While some cyberattacks are state-sponsored, the “US has to be in a position where not everything is dealt with at the same level, because there are different types of attacks, different methodologies,” she says.

“Not everything is a Pearl Harbor, obviously,”

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