Military Officials Offering to Hire the Elite of the Cybervandal World


Pentagon Seeking Talented Hackers
by Eric Auchard

Source: Excite

July 29, 2000

LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - The largest-ever convention of computer hackers opened here on Friday with top-ranking U.S. military officials offering to hire the elite of the cybervandal world and put them to work defending against foreign government attacks.

"I invite you to join the government, or private industry for that matter. But get on the defense side," Art Money, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense, and the Pentagonís Chief Information Officer with responsibility for command, control, communications and intelligence.

Money and a panel of colleagues from the Pentagon, the Air Force and Federal police agencies, were at turns cordial, threatening, moralizing and patriotic in their remarks to the conference, called DEF CON 8.0, which has drawn up to 5,000 attendees this year.

"If you are thinking about what you want to do the rest of your life, then ... maybe you want to come work with us," Money told a standing-room crowd of hundreds of hackers who paid rapt attention to his comments and let out only an occasional jeer.

Money took the audience to task for irresponsible break-ins, citing a little-publicized break-in to a military hospital two years ago in which he said data on the blood supply was tampered with, putting lives at risk before it was uncovered.

The surprise appearance by high-ranking military officials at the once underground event now turned media spectacle highlighted the seriousness with which U.S. authorities view what they classify as information warfare threats, from incidents of Web site vandalism and computer virus scares to unspecified state-sponsored threats to national security.

It also showcased the transformation of DEF CON, as the eight-year-old gathering is known, from a controversial summer camp for teenage and twenty-something computer break-in artists with criminal arrest records into a mainstream event drawing thousands of professional network security managers with responsible corporate or government jobs.

"Thereís a lot of people just sitting on the fence," said DEF CON founder and organizer Jeff Moss. "Sooner or later you understand thereís a limited life span to doing this stuff," Moss said of criminal penalties that can now stretch up to two or three year prison sentences for some hacking activities. "Maybe (itís) because people are just growing up."

The three-day conference includes sessions devoted to cloaking oneís identity, network "lock-picking," how to break into every major software system available, including residential, corporate and government networks. It also involves plenty of poolside lounging, drunken parties, social mixing and antic behavior from a crowd that -- at its extremes -- has a variety of participants with neon green hair and one fellow in military fatigues and a helmet sprouting deer antlers.

Moss, 30, told reporters afterward that the focus of this yearís conference was heavily skewed toward technical issues and meant to discourage those with half-hearted interest in complex computer security. He said organizers had deliberately downplayed some of the semi-legal sessions of past years and were focused on provoking hackers to think more broadly about the consequences of their actions.

"Corporate America is interested in this stuff," said Moss, who himself started out as a teenage hacker breaking into phone systems and university computers but later became a consultant for Secure Computing Corp (SCUR.O), a major computer security firm. "Itís not just for kiddies anymore," he said.

Internet security and the vulnerability of individual, business, government and even military computers to attack has become a daily topic of media coverage worldwide.

This yearís attacks on major Web sites and a wave of computer virus attacks that have infected millions of computers has elevated many of the habituates of the hacker underworld to the status of counter-cultural celebrities on a par with rock stars and leading social activists.

As the military panel was in progress, a uniformed Navy recruiting officer stood up at the back of the room, ready to sign up potential applicants.

But no one rushed forward at a conference where paranoia about the governmentís crackdown on hacking remains high and the "Spot the Fed Contest" among conference participants is a featured event on the agenda.

Still, a crowd that had in past years hooted and shouted down federal prosecutors who dared to appear at the event, was on its best behavior, perhaps somewhat in awe that an official of Moneyís stature would take time to address them.

The glare of world media attention also may have cooled some ardor, as one organizer specifically warned hackers facing potential legal showdowns that they might want to conceal their faces from the roving eyes of cameras.

© 2000 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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