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Tech hiring binge may pose security risks for government

Jun. 12, 2013 - 06:50PM   |  
By JIM MICHAELS   |   Comments
Spending on cyber operations is one of the few areas in the Pentagon that will increase in coming years. The Pentagon has requested $4.6 billion for cybersecurity expenses next year, up from $3.9 billion this fiscal year. The Pentagon expects to spend $23 billion on cyber in the next five years. The demand for people with computer skills has bid up the price for computer jobs, analysts say.
Spending on cyber operations is one of the few areas in the Pentagon that will increase in coming years. The Pentagon has requested $4.6 billion for cybersecurity expenses next year, up from $3.9 billion this fiscal year. The Pentagon expects to spend $23 billion on cyber in the next five years. The demand for people with computer skills has bid up the price for computer jobs, analysts say. (MC2 Timothy Walter / Navy)

Among the more curious revelations to emerge from the recent NSA leak saga is how a 29-year-old high school dropout landed a $122,000 job in a sensitive government program.

Edward Snowden, the contractor who spilled top secret information about a sensitive government electronic data collection program, said he did so out of idealism. His actions have triggered a national debate about privacy and national security.

But his case also highlights just how hungry the government and private industry is for people with computer skills.

“They’re competing heavily for anyone who can get a clearance and has computer skills,” said Jeffrey Carr, founder of Taia Global, a cybersecurity consultancy.

The Pentagon and the intelligence community are both ramping up cyber capabilities in the face of repeated attacks on U.S. companies from China and elsewhere and concerns about how terrorists use technology to communicate and raise money.

The Snowden case raises questions about whether the government has opened itself to security breaches in its rush to hire computer experts.

Carr said Snowden’s failure to complete high school and military training should have raised concerns about his employment prospects. The Army said Snowden attempted to complete Special Forces training but was administratively discharged after several months of training.

“I would see too many danger signals with this guy,” Carr said.

Spending on cyber operations is one of the few areas in the Pentagon that will increase in coming years. The Pentagon has requested $4.6 billion for cybersecurity expenses next year, up from $3.9 billion this fiscal year. The Pentagon expects to spend $23 billion on cyber in the next five years.

The demand for people with computer skills has bid up the price for computer jobs, analysts say.

Snowden’s $122,000 salary was high for someone who didn’t complete high school, but was not completely out of line, particularly for someone with a government security clearance and potentially some specific skills, said J.P. Auffret, who heads a cybersecurity master’s degree program at George Mason University. Snowden had previously worked for the CIA.

At the time he leaked the information, Snowden worked for Booz Allen Hamilton at an NSA office in Hawaii and apparently had access to a sensitive data-collection program. The company said Tuesday it fired Snowden.

In the quest for computer expertise the Defense Department and intelligence agencies outsourced much of their work to organizations such as Booz Allen Hamilton. Private companies can generally hire faster and pay larger salaries, allowing the military and intelligence agencies to get talent quickly.

But some critics say the government has outsourced too much to the private sector. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said 22 percent of the Defense Department workforce is made up of contractors.

The government and industry have been on a hiring binge for workers with computer skills, analysts say. “We’re all looking at the same résumés,” said Dickie George, who retired from the NSA in 2011 after 41 years.

“There’s a job shortage of 340,000 in cybersecurity,” said Robert Rodriguez, a cybersecurity analyst and former Secret Service agent.

Workers on government contracts have to pass extensive and lengthy background checks before they can be hired, shrinking the pool of potential employees even further.

Often the government and contractors are looking for computer experts with a rebel streak who can think like enemy hackers. They work alongside more buttoned-down government bureaucrats.

“There is a cultural difference,” said George, who during his career has seen the NSA go from hiring mathematics geniuses who could crack codes to the latest generation of computer nerds.

He said they are patriotic Americans, though they may exhibit a different style in dress. “There were people who I don’t know what color their hair is going to be next time I see them,” he said.

But some analysts say the new generation of computer enthusiasts has been shaped by the Internet, where national borders have little meaning. In some cases they don’t have the same loyalties to the United States.

“You live online where the Internet has completely erased boundaries of nation states,” Carr said. “You don’t think of yourself as a U.S. citizen.”

Jim Michaels reports for USA Today.

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