In 2016, Stanford students started hacking for defense—that is, they took on real projects from National Security Agency, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Army Cyber Command, the Veterans Administration, and other agencies with defense-related problems. The students actually came up with prototype solutions.
The innovative Hacking For Defense (H4D) class, which requires each student team to conduct at least 100 interviews with defense industry “clients,” caught on quickly. Today, according to Steve Blank, an instructor at Stanford and one of the creators of the curriculum, eight universities in addition to Stanford have offered or will offer a Hacking for Defense class this year: Boise State, Columbia, Georgetown, James Madison, the University of California at San Diego, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Southern California, and the University of Southern Mississippi. The class has spun out Hacking for Diplomacy, Hacking for Energy, and other targeted classes that use the same methodology.
The snowballing effort is now poised to get a big push. This month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment originated by Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) to support development of curriculum, best practices, and recruitment materials for the program to the tune of $15 million (a drop in the $700 billion defense budget but a big deal for a university program).
In arguing for the amendment, Lipinski said, “Rapid, low-cost technological innovation is what makes Silicon Valley revolutionary, but the DOD hasn’t historically had the mechanisms in place to harness this American advantage. Hacking for Defense creates ways for talented scientists and engineers to work alongside veterans, military leaders, and business mentors to innovate solutions that make America safer.”
Even though the first class was just a year ago, ideas coming out of it are moving quickly into the real world. One of the teams in that first group, Capella Space, is getting ready to deploy a fleet of tiny, cheap, synthetic aperture radar satellites that may prove instrumental in tracking missiles launched by North Korea. (The team had angel investors before its members got their grades for the quarter.)
Hacking for Defense efforts, like Capella’s, have “the potential to make our world a much safer place,” wrote Blank in a blog post.
The Defense Authorization Act is now awaiting action by the U.S. Senate.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.