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Thursday, March 11, 2010

20,000 US Hackers Wanted...Creating the Computer Elite (or Failing at it)

In the future, experts predict that wars will be fought both in physical places, like Afghanistan and Iraq and in cyberspace such as the recent attacks that have allegedly originated in China on NATO and the European Union computers searching for secret intelligence material. In fact, Edward Castronova, in his book, Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Gamespredicts in the future battles may occur between virtual armies for virtual territory and that countries must begin to train "soldiers" how to fight as avatars. And interactive role-play games like America's Army certainly blend the 3D-cyber world and physical world training-type activities. There have already been stories of terrorist armies attacking residents in Second Life and of terrorists using these spaces for practice of physical world attacks.

So the need for hackers is not trivial. Unfortunately, the rate at which the US creates elite hackers is, at best, anemic. Back in 2007, I attended a keynote address by Dr. Peter Joyce of Cisco Systems who predicted a shortage of Information Technology workers. He provided statistics like an "estimated 1.5 million new computer and IT related jobs will be needed between 2002 and 2012" and concluded that there will "be intense competition for top talent in the field. He was spot on.

Recently Newsweek ran an article titled Educating Elite Hackers. In the article, the stated that "the number of elite cybersecurity experts needed to protect and traffic this area for the government and the private sector is dangerously inadequate" and estimated that only about 1,000 elite hackers exist in US and that 20,000 are actually needed.

What is an elite hacker? Someone who can think outside of the box and who has "wicked" computer skills. The article gives an example:

In a cybersecurity simulation (called "Netwars"), the 240 contestants were required to hack into 12 servers. Each server was worth points and whoever had the highest tally at the end of the game would be declared the winner. But instead of going from server to server,one young hacker named Michael Coppola decided to hack the scoreboard and give himself the most points. Naturally, he won. "It wasn't part of the initial plan," he says. "I just happened to come across the vulnerability and decided to focus my time on that."

Contrast that need for out-of-the-box thinking about programs and computers with two stories.

One from a blog entry I wrote in 2007 called Hire That Kid! where a kid had placed cheat sheets, answers to test questions and even a clip from "School House Rocks" on his own MP3 player to cheat on an exam...clever use of the MP3 player and, as a result of the major infraction, the school immediately banned MP3 players disciplined the kid. They disciplined him for the very behavior and thinking that would make him an elite hacker. In fact, In fact, the kid who is clever enough to understand the value of the information contained in the School House Rock songs, download them from the internet and put them on an MP3 player for a test is EXACTLY the kind of person we need...opportunity lost.

And now, so called "enlighten professors" at universities like at George Washington University, American University, the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia are banning evil laptops from classes because they lead to a "world wide web of distraction"...hey professor...maybe your class is just BORING. Or, more realistically, the laptops are not integrated into the lessons effectively. If you are going to insist on lecturing on and on from notes or PowerPoints created years ago...guess what? Kids are going to tune out because they use computers EVERYWHERE else, integration, not banning is the solution.

How we are going to create elite hackers when the use of laptops is looked down upon and is actually banned (and the trend, incredibly, is growing).

The Newsweek article states that part of the problems is that we have academic programs that don't produce the kind of people we need.  Part of the problem is that the U.S. stopped funding computer sciences for about 10 years and a part of the problem is that until recently we really didn't understand just what kind of people we needed. Read "THE PROBLEM IS THAT EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTIONS HAVE NOT KEPT UP"

Now enter the huge de-valuation and de-prioritization of education in the United States and we now are incurring serious national security threats. Brilliant programmers --who should be defending cyber space--are, instead,  creating ridiculous and ultimately flawed financial models that did nothing but rob money from unsuspecting marks (yes, we are not investors, we are marks).

So when the economy tanked, the US jobless rate soared to over 30% in some areas and the need to educate our citizens increased dramatically, huge systemic problems in the educational industry were revealed.

We have a flawed educational system on many levels. Examples? A Rhode Island school fires all its teachers for inadequate peformance and in Kansas City 26 of 59 schools are shut down because of economic problems and costs keep going up with no corresponding results. Students are graduating with increasingly high debt and without needed skills. See Huffington Post's continuing story Majoring In Debt. And see the mini-protests across the country because of cuts in education (I call them "mini" because the anger that should be generated at the robbing of educational opportunities in this country and the education bubble we are now experiencing should be causing riots, car flipping and broken glass (you know...they type of behavior exhibited after a big sports event), not sit-ins, rallies and marches).

So what do we do to create the computer elite.
  • Stop banning computers and electronics in the classroom
  • Create computer schools where students come everyday and learn to hack
  • Sponsor hacking contests
  • Support ethical hacking computer program (update our current computer programming courses)
  • Create learning environment that are unconventional (returning to the past does not move us to the future.)
  • Bridge the "haves" and "have nots" in education, give every child a laptop for goodness never know where the next genius is coming from.
  • Get really UPSET over the dis-investment in education in the United States.
Support programs like:
The Information and Communication Technologies National Center in Springfield, MA (sponsored by NSF) The Mid-Pacific Information and Communication Technologies Center in San Francisco, CA (sponsored by NSF) The Convergence Technology Center in Collin County, Texas.

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Howard Johnson said...

Good points Karl;
Speed to market is one issue that comes to mind. I worked with security issues for a short time and can attest that some people like to ignore security until it suddenly becomes a huge priority. Then you can't find enough security experts; so colleges make plans to ramp up undergrad programs and 8 years later graduate emerge to a market that has since moved on. I'm wondering how to re-organize curriculum and delivery so people can respond to opportunity when it happens. Back in the 90s a mentor of mine thought that faculty should get together every three years to argue why their course deserved to remain in the curriculum. Sounds like an interesting way to spur innovation without threatening tenure - not that it would ever happen

annb said...


sanjay kumar negi said...

hacker are now the big problems for our computer world.



'very interesting post'

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