Meeting the Feds at the Def Con Hacker Fair

Computer hackers met over the weekend at the annual Def Con Conference in Las Vegas — and this year, recruiters from the nation's security agencies held a "Meet the Feds" job fair to encourage young computer geniuses to help protect the nation's databases and Web sites from terrorists.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand. For the last 14 years, thousands of computer hackers have gathered every August to meet, swap code, and whoop it up in Las Vegas at the Def Con Conference. This year, as Doug Fine reports, it's not just hackers who are at Def Con but federal officials looking to recruit them.

DOUG FINE reporting:

Ever since Def Con started, the conference has drawn a mixture of two kinds of hackers: the law abiding network tinkerers and the so-called crackers, the ones who like to break into high level government and corporate networks for fun or for profit. In fact, in the old days the conference used to be crawling with undercover federal agents keeping tabs on the latest network shenanigans. Def Con even had an official contest called Spot the Feds.

But now the feds at Def Con are out in the open. Linton Wells is one of them. He's Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration. He's here because he says hackers are needed for National Defense.

Mr. LINTON WELLS (Defense Department): There's an enormous talent pool among the members attending this convention. Plus they have enormous curiosity in finding out how things work and how they don't work. So if we can learn from the people who make it an avocation or a vocation to poke holes in things, we ought to try to do that.

FINE: What's at stake, according to Wells, is nothing short of winning this millennium's wars, fought in a digitally networked world. He said the U.S. security computer network is attacked thousands of times every day from all over the world.

Mr. WELLS: Keeping that network secure is absolutely critical. Whether it's delivering bombs on target, whether it's delivering fuel to the right people, whether it's helping the commander know what a situation is. It's not hypothetical. These wars are going on today.

FINE: So now the feds at Def Con have hiring rather than investigating on their minds.

Mr. DAVE THOMAS (FBI): Good evening, Dave Thomas from the FBI.

FINE: At a conference panel, appropriately called Meet the Feds, high level administrators and agents from six federal agencies - including the FBI, the Department of Defense, and the IRS - solicited resumes from a crowd of several hundred hackers, many wearing incomprehensible t-shirts full of UNIX code. And even as they recruited, the feds indicated that they might be willing to forgive long past sins.

Mr. THOMAS: Growing up in the state of Tennessee, this reminds me of a large-scale tent revival. So if any of you feel the power and the spirit moving you, we're empowered to take confession 24 hours a day, so please come on forward.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FINE: But the federal government faces at least two hurdles in recruiting hackers. The first is the thorny issue of gaining clearance for those who might have criminal records. And the second is the traditionally libertarian ideal in cyberspace. Indeed, the Meet the Fed panelists faced some tough questions from hackers at Def Con. Like this one from Ben Evros(ph), a software engineer from Reno.

Mr. BEN EVROS (Software Engineer): Why would anybody from the scientific community want to work under the current Bush administration/regime, for an administration that continually tries to silence a lot of the scientific community?

Unidentified Man: We make a lot of money. We have a lot of fun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FINE: There was also plenty of enthusiasm from the crowd of Def Con hackers. Mike Ian(ph) from New York was among a mob of 30 job seekers who approached the panel members with his resume as soon as the event ended.

Mr. MIKE IAN (Def Con Hacker): I know many people who have positions and they're very, very happy with it, and I think a lot of it as a quality of work.

FINE: But many independent hackers relish a more freestyle quality of life. As for fears that government work means a dull business suit and a military haircut, Linton Wells said that even at the Department of Defense, hackers can be hackers.

Mr. WELLS: Some of the people whom I value most in my job don't look at all like your typical government worker. They wear black shirts, they have ponytails, whatever, and they are terrific.

FINE: The addictive thrill of network tinkering and getting paid to do it is what can lure hackers from the basement to the Pentagon, according to G. Mark Hardy(ph). He moved from hacker to military work for the Department of the Navy before starting his own information security consulting firm.

Mr. G. MARK HARDY (Former Department of Navy Employee): It's a blast to go ahead and break into things. I used to work with guys who once they got into the network, he'd put on these little horns that he would glue onto his head with this spirit gum. And it was a little bit difficult to bring him into a client site. We'd be at a bank, it's a multi-billion dollar organization and here's this 300 pound guy wandering around with horns on his head.

FINE: I think I just saw that guy down the hall - several of them, in fact. So watch out in a federal building near you. These lifestyles could be working their way into the deepest recesses of the security establishment. For NPR News, I'm Doug Fine.

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