Network Security, Vulnerability Management

Spies recruiting hackers: Gen. Keith Alexander at DefCon

Security experts and computer jocks all descend on Las Vegas each summer for the annual tech-romp known as DefCon. While trading research secrets and networking with peers are the primary motivators, a curveball came in this year in the form of an unlikely speaker.

The government entity many consider to be the prime culprit in the “surveillance state” because of its warrantless wiretapping program, the National Security Agency (NSA), sent its highest-ranking member to present.

According to reports, Jeff Moss, DefCon founder and CSO at ICANN, told the crowd prior to the presentation by Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command, that he wanted attendees to learn about one of the “spookiest” organizations in the world. Still, the talk was met with its share of skepticism. A significant portion of the DefCon audience is known to share anti-government sentiments and is privacy conscious when it comes to the internet. 

Dressed down in a T-shirt and jeans, Alexander presented to a packed room on “Shared Values, Shared Responsibility.” Hopes of learning some interesting information about the agency soon morphed into more of a recruitment speech, said attendees.

This was expected, said Iftach Ian Amit, director of services at IOActive. While there has been a presence of federal security agencies in the past at DefCon, Amit said their main objective is more to make appearances than share any interesting insight on how they operate. 

“The talk was a somewhat shallow attempt to drive people to join the ranks, and in the pretense of patriotic motivation, report on everything,” Amit said. “It would be similar to going to a tradeshow and asking everyone to come clean with their trade secrets and special designs.”

However, no one should not be surprised by Alexander's call to action. The career section of the NSA's website even has a page targeting DefCon attendees.

Although skeptical of what would be asked of the hacking community during the presentation, Phil Agcaoili, CISO of Cox Communications, said he is pleased that the government is attempting to tap into homegrown talent. 

“There is a natural opportunity for hackers to work for or to simply support the NSA and other government agencies,” Agcaoili said. “There is always an opportunity to upset the status quo, but their intentions are clear – they need to find and employ the best to defend our country.”

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