On 27 July, attendees of the DefCon conference in Las Vegas witnessed something unprecedented: The head of one of the most secretive U.S. government agencies addressed them and even stuck around to answer questions. General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and head of the U.S. Army Cyber Command, then went a step further, asking the hackers at the conference to work for the spy agency. That was no empty gesture. According to Forbes, Alexander referred them to a job recruitment site created specifically for the conference. And despite decades of clashes between hackers and agencies such as the NSA, Alexander made a shameless attempt at flattery, calling the audience “the world’s best cybersecurity community.”
It was smart of NSA to enlist the help of hackers. If nothing else, it calls to mind the proverbial ‘enemy of my enemy...’ It also makes sense because the spotlight has been shining brightly on the vulnerability of the United States’ heavily computer-dependent infrastructure.
A PC Magazine article noted that Alexander asked for help with stopping gambits such as distributed denial-of-service attacks that limit the flow of information on the Web. He also made a more worrisome request, says MIT Technology Review: that the hackers at DefCon help to restructure the Internet in a way that would give the NSA the ability to "know instantly when overseas hackers might be attacking public or private infrastructure and computer networks." PC Magazine characterized that part of the appeal as “part of an effort to get around restrictions on monitoring Internet activity that the NSA, FBI, and other U.S. law enforcement agencies must abide by.”
Stepping into the erstwhile enemy’s camp was not without its uncomfortable moments. During the question-and-answer period, Alexander was asked whether the NSA kept dossiers on legions of U.S. residents. (He called the idea “absolute nonsense".) Social media was abuzz with comments expressing disbelief that the agency’s true aim is to keep the Internet safe from cyber thieves, vandals, and terrorists. PC Magazine also reported that the NSA’s booth was next to the one run by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Internet freedom and privacy group that is suing the NSA because of unauthorized wiretapping of U.S. citizens.
Willie Jones is an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum. In addition to editing and planning daily coverage, he manages several of Spectrum's newsletters and contributes regularly to the monthly Big Picture section that appears in the print edition.