Government, Hackers Learn To Make Nice

It’s still an uneasy alliance, but the hacking community and government are finding their way toward more constructive dialog and cooperation

It’s not every day you hear the chief technologist at the Federal Trade Commission brag about learning how to pick a lock. But that small side trip during the recent Black Hat USA conference in Las Vegas proved illuminating for the FTC’s Lorrie Faith Cranor and underscored the changing relationship between government and the hacker community.

Cranor, along with Cris Thomas, aka “Space Rogue” and strategist for Tenable Network Security, were part of a panel discussion in Washington today that examined how this relationship has shifted from its adversarial nature to something more cooperative — and even trusting. The discussion was part of a “cyber risk” discussion series sponsored by the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

The AC panelists noted that legislators, agency personnel, and policymakers are more welcome now at events like Black Hat and DEF CON, where “Spot the Fed” contests have given way to “Meet the Fed” panels, a sign that the hacker community is growing up.

But there’s still some mutual fear between the two communities, panelists agreed. “For many people in government, ‘hacker’ still means criminal,” Thomas told the audience. “And there’s still a lot of distrust of government from the hacker community.”

The FTC’s Cranor said her goal at Black Hat was to do outreach in the hacker community. “We are interested in hearing about research that can help us understand vulnerabilities in the Internet of Things and protect consumers from scams and fraud,” she said. She met a forensics expert who studies the language of phone scammers to see how they operate.

“It’s a vibrant community with lots of scary things going on,” she said of her Black Hat experience.

The AC speakers pointed to shifting government attitudes and practices, with the advent of DoD’s “Hack the Pentagon” (a name that would have been unthinkable five years ago) bug bounty program, and active recruitment of white hat hackers to work in government. “Despite all that baggage, we’re still trying to reach across the aisle and help each other out,” Thomas said.

The upside is that the two sides are working together more in key areas like protecting critical infrastructure, addressing the security skills talent gap and having more dialog around “cyber” legislation and policy.

“Hackers don’t like that word but that’s how they speak about security here in Washington,” Thomas said in an interview with Dark Reading after the panel discussion.

Thomas acknowledged the hacker community has gotten more sophisticated with lobbying and making sure their voices get heard. Ten years ago when Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, “there was a lot of complaining but not a lot of doing – there was no organized effort and no participation in the process” on the part of hackers and security researchers, Thomas said. “With the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, people want to know how to comment and are trying to influence the decision and are taking a more active role,” he said.

To handle the shortfall in security hiring, the federal government is considering removing certain requirements for job candidates, a move Thomas thinks is a huge mistake. Many candidates are driven by personal values regarding public service, which is something government should emphasize in its recruiting, he said.

Want to work with the top researchers in cryptography? Encourage candidates to apply to the NSA. “There’s a patriotic pride in working for the government that some people are really attracted to.”

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Terry Sweeney is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered technology, networking, and security for more than 20 years. He was part of the team that started Dark Reading and has been a contributor to The Washington Post, Crain’s New York Business, Red Herring, … View Full Bio

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