Tech-savvy students, take heed: Computer hackers are wanted by federal authorities, but not for prosecution. Instead, the government is looking to hire so-called "white hat" hackers to secure the nation’s networks.

General Dynamics Information Technology put out an ad last month on behalf of the Homeland Security Department seeking someone who could "think like the bad guy." Applicants, it said, must understand hackers’ tools and tactics and be able to analyze internet traffic and identify vulnerabilities in the federal systems.

In the Pentagon’s budget request submitted last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Pentagon will increase the number of cyber experts it can train each year from 80 to 250 by 2011.

With warnings that the U.S. is ill-prepared for a cyber attack, the White House conducted a 60-day study of how the government can better manage and use technology to protect everything from the electrical grid and stock markets to tax data, airline flight systems, and nuclear launch codes.

President Barack Obama appointed a former Bush administration aide, Melissa Hathaway, to head the effort, and her report was delivered April 17, the White House said.

Although the country had detailed plans for floods, fires, or errant planes drifting into protected airspace, there is no similar response etched out for a major computer attack.

David Powner, director of technology issues for the Government Accountability Office, told Congress last month that the U.S. has no recovery plan for a digital disaster.

"We’re clearly not as prepared as we should be," he said.

Administration officials says the U.S. has not kept pace with technological innovations needed to protect its computer networks against emerging threats from hackers, criminals, or other nations looking for national security secrets.

U.S. computer networks, including those at the Pentagon and other federal agencies, are under persistent attacks, ranging from nuisance hacking to more nefarious assaults, possibly from other nations, such as China. Industry leaders told Congress during a recent hearing that law enforcement and other protections are too outdated to fend off threats from criminals, terrorists, and foreign nations.

Just last week, a former government official revealed that spies had hacked into the U.S. electric grid and left behind computer programs that would let them disrupt service. The intrusions were discovered after electric companies gave the government permission to audit their systems, said the ex-official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Cyber threats are also included as a key potential national security risk outlined in a classified report put together by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Pentagon officials say they spent more than $100 million in the last six months responding to and repairing damage from cyber attacks and other computer network problems.

Nadia Short, vice president at General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems, said the job posting for ethical hackers fills a critical need for the government.

The analysts keep constant watch on the government networks as part of a program called Einstein that was initiated by the Bush administration under the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team.

Short said the $60 million, four-year contract with US-CERT uses the ethical hackers to analyze threats to the government’s computer systems and develop ways to reduce vulnerabilities.

Faced with such cyber challenges, Obama ordered the 60-day review to examine how federal agencies manage and protect their massive amounts of data and what the government’s role should be in guarding the vast networks that control the country’s vital utilities and infrastructure.

Over the past two months, Hathaway met with hundreds of industry leaders, Capitol Hill staff, and other experts, seeking guidance on what the federal government’s role should be in protecting information networks against an attack.

She sought recommendations on how officials should define and report cyber incidents and attacks; how the government should structure its cyber oversight; and how the nation can increase security without stifling innovation.

A task force of technology giants, including representatives from General Dynamics, IBM, Lockheed Martin, and Hewlett-Packard Co., urged the administration to establish a White House-level official to lead cyber efforts and to develop ways to share information on problems more quickly with the private sector.

The administration has struggled with the basics, such as who should control the nation’s cyberspace programs. There appears to be some agreement now that the White House should coordinate the overall effort, rejecting suggestions that the National Security Agency take it on–a plan that triggered protests on Capitol Hill and from civil liberties groups worried about giving such control to spy agencies.

Links:

White House

General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems

U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team

GAO report