LAS VEGAS--We're from the government and we want you to help us.
That was the message from a seven-member "Meet the Fed" panel, where government officials answered the questions of a roomful of hackers at the Def Con conference here Saturday.
Including members of law enforcement, a congressman and security experts, the panel illuminated the problems the government has in securing systems and appealed to hackers not to make it any harder--both to help the government and to help themselves.
"The objective of coming and having a 'Meet the Fed' panel is to give folks who have not crossed the line yet a positive alternative," said Jim Christy, a supervisory special agent for the Department of Defense. "There is a whole lot of talent here--let's put that talent to good use."
Rather than enemies meeting across the table, the session instead resembled a collegial meeting of the minds. At the end of the one-hour session, hackers mobbed the panel to continue the discussion and, in many cases, to inquire about jobs.
"There was a lot of people who wanted cards because they wanted jobs," said Christy, who added that teenagers doing the right things now may make all the difference later.
"What we are trying to do is to give folks an alternative to the counterculture where you are going to break the law," he said. "Somewhere down the road you are going to affect your entire life."
Such comments were directed at the younger members of the crowd, marking a drastic change for Def Con from previous years. Though the conference has its roots in the underground hacker movement, Def Con has been more about underground culture than about technology in recent years. This year, however, the crowd seemed older, more mature and technical.
Paul Smulian, chief of staff for the DOD's Directorate of Information Assurance in the Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence, or C3I, section, said that the government is actively looking for those technical hackers who have acted responsibly and ethically.
"Some of our most secret agencies across the country are looking at people with skills that the people in the audience have," he said after the session.
While Smulian admitted that he had looked for ways to get out of coming to what he believed would be a duck shoot, he found the panel discussion and the chats afterward to be rewarding.
"Nowhere else do we get the insight that we're getting here," he said. "I was one of the last people who wanted to come here. But this was a great eye-opener for me."
While searching for ethical hackers at the conference is a crap shoot, Smulian said the government is forming plans to educate would-be hackers earlier on a solid code of ethics for cyberspace.
"What the National Plan calls for is education at the very youngest level," he said, "so we have good cybercitizens that grow up and can work for our most secure government agencies."
Other members of the panel said that's well and good, but today it's important for hackers to leave government computers alone.
"We are all in this country together," said Raymond Semko, the ponytailed director of the Interagency OPSEC Support Staff, the group responsible for security-unclassified, but sensitive, government data. "We have to watch each other's back."
Appealing to the crowd's patriotism, and getting applause in return, Semko added, "What I can't take is all those other countries out there who think we are weak and easy prey."
The hardest questions posed to the panel were questions of the erosion of privacy by new law enforcement technologies, such as Carnivore and ubiquitous tracking using cell phone signals.
Although he said he believed privacy was an important right, the DOD's Christy said law enforcement needs to keep its tools.
"We just want to retain the same tools," he said. "We have serious concerns about losing the right to use tools that we need to protect and serve."
The debate will continue, he added.
"If there was an easy answer there would not be all the controversy."