The threat of digital attacks on the country's critical infrastructure, such as the power grid or water sector, "keeps us up at night," says Phyllis Schneck, the department of Homeland Security's top cybersecurity official. And she wants young hackers to help the government protect these systems.
"There's nothing nerdy about this," Dr. Schneck said. "This is our future. You're going to keep our country safe, you're going to build our systems, you're going to innovate the heck out of this – and bring it on."
Schneck's rallying cry came at a hacking competition Passcode hosted last week, where security researchers – many of them college students – launched digital attacks against internet-connected water systems set up for the contest that nearly caused the containers to overflow. The competitors came to Washington from universities across the East Coast and the private sector, with a goal of practicing the skills needed to defend such systems in the future.
Threats against the grid have been in the spotlight since last December when hackers took out the power in Ukraine for more than 230,000 people in the first-ever known cyberattack to take out a portion of a country's power grid. Schneck's agency helped investigate the high-profile attack, which fueled the need for skilled people who can defend against such threats in the US.
The question the US must answer today, Schneck says, is: "How resilient are you?"
"Remember," she adds, "you're up against people with no way of life to protect, no attorneys and plenty of money. That's a tough adversary."