The U.S. government wants hackers, and it wants them young. In the face of a growing number of cyber attacks from China's hacker army on American companies and government agencies, the Department of Homeland Security is the latest to ramp up its recruiting efforts. The DHS dudes aren't camping out at colleges like MIT and Cal Tech, though. They're going straight to high schools, where they can catch bright young hackers before they're pulled into the lucrative, alluring startup community. After all, why go work for the government protecting Americans when you could become a billionaire in your early twenties?
It's a tough proposition that's long hampered the government's ability to recruit top tech talent. The DHS says it needs about 600 hacker-types to beef up its cyber security team, but it can't pay the same salaries that talented young coders could make in the private sector. And — let's face it — becoming a bureaucrat just isn't that cool. It also takes years to climb up the ranks and actually win some power. Again, one alternative for these kids is the possibility of becoming a teenage CEO who sells an app to a Silicon Valley giant for $40 million.
How can they compete with the People's Liberation Army in China, where there are apparently thousands of military-grade hackers targeting the U.S. daily. While the Chinese army keeps its cyber attack division pretty secret, American cyber security companies and defense agencies have tracked countless attacks back to a base outside of Shanghai. China's famous for recruiting kids for highly specialized jobs like this at a young age. We also know that the PLA hosts nationwide challenges every spring to pick out the best young minds to join its thriving cyber army.
It's a tough proposition in the U.S., but it's not an impossible one. The government has plenty of experience recruiting cadets for other less appealing jobs, and they're coming up with new methods all the time, including borrowing China's methods. If they can talk tens of thousands of soldiers into flying into the middle of the desert where they'll get shot at by unknown enemy, surely they can talk a bunch of geeks to sit at a computer all day. If not, experts say, they'd better figure it out soon.
"We have to show them how cool and exciting this is," Ed Skoudis, cyber security trainer at the Sans Institute, told The New York Times recently.
What better way to show a teenager how cool something is than to make it into a video game. The DHS is working on cooperating with various cyber security competitions around the country and encourage young people to join. With names like the Cyber Cup Challenge and Cyber Aces, the organizers make password sniffing and code cracking sound like a sport. For the former, students are given the same challenges that the military uses to train its cyber security teams, and earlier this month, several teenagers performed at a level equivalent to a military specialist with a decade of experience. No wonder the government wants them young.
Different government agencies have different approaches, but they all seem to gamify the process to a certain degree. The National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency have long gone to black hat conferences where they can cherry pick the top hackers for government jobs. It also can't hurt that the Department of Justice is systematically indicting hacker-types and threatening them with serious jail sentences.
Think about it this way: you can either be a hacker on your own and face decades in jail, or you can be a hacker for the government and win decades of job security. Or you can take the startup route and become a millionaire. Your move America's youth!