You have to be brave to go to DefCon. The hacker conference is coming up on 20 years of existence and is estimated to include as many as 12,000 attendees. The staff members are known as goons, and if you dare to connect to the wireless network, you will almost definitely be hacked. Each year, in addition to presentations and lock-picking practice, a game called “Spot the Fed” is played.
Why, exactly, are there feds at DefCon? A few reasons, actually. Some go undercover to spy on potential hackers. Others are there to learn. Still others, such as National Security Agency director Gen. Keith Alexander — go to recruit. Although recruiting at a hacking conference may seem counterintuitive, consider that perhaps the greatest threat to the federal government is cybersecurity. In fact, who better to employ against elite hackers than elite hackers?
Because the government and hackers are often at odds, Alexander’s appearance at DefCon drew a huge crowd. (DefCon does not allow preregistration, and all attendees must pay cash at the door.) His presentation didn’t thrill everyone, but his petition for support was genuine:
Dressed casually in blue jeans and a t-shirt, Alexander was deferential to the packed auditorium of hackers and security professionals, telling them that DefCon was “the world’s best cyber community,” and appealed to the audience for help in solving some of the problems of the internet.
“In this room … is the talent our nation needs to secure cyberspace,” he told the audience. “You folks understand cybersecurity. You know that we can protect the networks and have civil liberties and privacy, and you can help us get there.”
Of course, the argument could be made that it’s more cost-effective to employ hackers than to fight them, but cyberthreats against the United States come in all shapes and sizes and from all over the world. Additionally, no one wants to face a successful attack that impacts his or her daily life. Services such as electricity and water filtration must be closely guarded to prevent a disruption.
From 2006 to 2009, cyberattacks against civilian agencies increased by 400%, according to OhMyGov. The frequency in attacks is increasing, and the stakes are getting higher. In addition to drafting young coders to groom as cybersecurity experts, the government is looking to pick up the best free agents on the market. So whether the motivation is “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” or “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” this recruitment is a smart move by the government. They went as far as setting up a landing page on the NSA website to offer more information to interested candidates.
There is no word on whether any hackers were hired as a result of the event, and there probably never will be. But you can expect the government to continue recruiting the world’s best cybersecurity professionals, whether you can spot the feds or not.