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'American Idol' for Hackers: The U.S. Government's Latest Recruitment Strategy

Attention, amateur hackers: Uncle Sam wants you to help fight cyber-crime -- and he's getting pretty desperate, too. As cyber-attacks become more complex and virulent, the U.S. government has poured billions of dollars into securing our nation's digital borders. Problem is, it's facing a severe shortage of manpower. Out of the roughly 20,000 "elite" cyber-experts that the U.S. needs, there are only about 1,000 currently fighting the good fight. Faced with this dearth of expertise, and with a national training program that's proven to be flawed, governmental agencies and private companies alike have broadened their recruitment wingspan in an effort to dig out whiz-kid diamonds in the rough.

One of the people spearheading this revamped recruitment initiative is Alan Paller, co-founder and research director of the Sans Institute cyber-security school, and who, according to Newsweek, is "kind of a real-life version of Professor Charles Xavier." Paller's already devoted 20 years to training cyber-crime fighters at Sans, and has recently come up with a particularly unique way of finding talent. In 2009, he co-hosted the first Cyber Challenge, an 'American Idol'-style contest in which 240 contestants had to hack into 12 servers, each one worth a specific amount of points. The winner (who subverted the system by ingeniously hacking the scoreboard) was eventually offered a scholarship at Sans, and the National Security Agency later hired eight other contestants for internships. Since then, the competition has started to gain steam as an effective recruiting tool, as both the FBI and Air Force have decided to offer internships and scholarships to future winners. Needless to say, the payoff can be handsome. The average cyber-security expert, according to, pulls in about $102,000 per year.

Some worry, though, that such competitions only encourage the kinds of skills that could later be used against the government. Paller, while acknowledging inherent risk, contends that his style of training and talent harvesting isn't all that different from military training. As he explains, "When the military trains young men and women to handle weapons, there's no guarantee some of them won't use that talent inappropriately." Given the country's dire need for expertise, Paller and his peers maintain that there's absolutely no time to waste in grooming the national cybercorps of tomorrow -- even if that means risking the occasional backfire. As he says, "I don't see a way to defend the country without growing these skills." We say: Ender's Game, anyone? [From: Newsweek]

Tags: airforce, cybercrime, cybersecurity, defense, fbi, government, hack, hacking, nsa, SansInstitute, security, top