DefCon 8: Uncle Sam recruits hackers

Government computer security heavyweights came recruiting for help fighting cyberterrorists at the opening discussion of the DefCon 8 hacker convention.

          Government computer security heavyweights came recruiting for help fighting cyberterrorists, at the opening discussion of the DefCon 8 hacker convention here.

          Panelists urged several hundred members of the computer underground to help battle computer-based attacks from "trans-nationals like Osama bin Laden and foreign governments." Government computers annually sustain some 21,400 unauthorised computer probes and attacks, according to Arthur Money, assistant secretary of defence. Every day, seven or eight of those attacks show a level of sophistication that proves the threat of cyberterrorism is growing, both domestically and internationally.

          He also warned hackers in the audience that his team of security experts must treat every hacking incident as if it were a directed threat by an aggressive agent or organisation out to harm the United States.

          "When our systems come under attack, we don't know if you're a kid doing it for giggles or if you're working for Osama bin Laden's group," Money said. "We can't just tell at the beginning of a hack what your intentions are."

          Money backed up his claims by asserting he knows of incidents when hackers broke into blood bank computers and switched information that could have caused the wrong blood to be used for transfusions.

          "People's lives are at stake here, and it's not cool to be an asshole," he said.

          Feds Offer Jobs

          At one point, the discussion turned into a barely-couched recruitment drive for the defence agency. Money invited "the best of the best" to join his team and help defend government computers against foreign attacks.

          "Don't bother applying if you're just average," he added.

          By the boisterous and negative reaction to many of the panel's comments, Money may get few takers. Most of the audience booed and hissed when panelists asserted the government's need to restrict access to strong data encryption software in order to protect people.

          Money also thanked the members of the computer underground in the audience, whom he assumed heeded his call to refrain from hacking government computers during the Y2K rollover last December. "You let us concentrate our efforts on preventing serious terrorism, and we're grateful."

          Moderator Richard Thieme, a security consultant, privately praised the work of Money's team, but couldn't disclose details of their work.

          "They have stopped or diverted numerous terrorist attacks before they happened," Thieme said. The Defense Department team has also used information warfare techniques offensively to prevent other cyberattacks from taking place.

          "These guys are not out of control, wild West, OK Corral types," Thieme said. "They have clear priorities, to protect and defend the perimeters of the country."

          Other panel members included Dick Schaeffer, director of information assurance for the Defense Department; Dave Jerrell, director of the Federal Computer Incident Response Capability; and Jim Christy, a computer crime investigator for the U.S. Air Force.

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