Last Wednesday, the Department of Defense finally announced that the "U.S. Cyber Command has achieved full operational capability." The Cyber Command will be "responsible for directing activities to operate and defend DoD networks," the release stated.
While we've heard a lot about the threat of cyber warfare, and the need for greater security, we haven't heard much about the people on the front line. Who are the cyberwarriors, and what will they do? I had an early glimpse into this world when I visited the provisional Cyber Command at Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, Louisiana.
One morning, I drove in with three cyberwarriors to accompany them on the job. Just before six thirty they filed into the Cyber Command, past the guard dog sign, slipped on their headsets, and stared into the wall of flashing screens. They would stay here for eight hours. Their hours rotated including a recurring graveyard shift.
When trouble happened, the guys snapped into action with expert precision, rapidly assimilating the attack and simultaneously dispatching orders to the other cyber warriors. Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonia, Texas housed a large supporting team of cyber warriors. Often the guys’ order was the same: shut down the computer system being attacked, and find someway to reroute it. Mouse-skills were essential. “If you hesitate for a second,” one cyber warrior told me, “that could be the difference in a base going down.”
Or someone dying. Though a cyber warrior isn’t dodging bullets, he knows that someone across the world could perish if he messes up. Command and control would handle the finest details – from dispatching troops to locking down gates – over computer networks. If a hacker went undetected, false information disseminated across a network could send troops right into harm’s way. And that sense of service empowers the cyber warriors to stay on top of their game. “Lives are depending on us,” another told me.
The cyber warriors weren’t just doing their battle at these desks. As young guys living their lives online, their constantly scanning the threats. David McNulty, a tall and laser-eyed 24-year-old staff sergeant from Honolulu, Hawaii, was the team’s designated hero in another crucial domain: World of Warcraft, the massively multiplayer online computer game.
McNulty played in a guild called Exanimus, partly for fun, but also for a more patriotic reason, to embed himself with hackers and geeks who can blow the whistle on potential threats. Players in the Warcraft knew where McNulty worked, and frequently came to him to expose malicious activity. One day, he learned of a security hole in a firewall at Barksdale that was giving hackers free reign. McNulty snapped to attention, and shut the gap before it was too late. “Playing World of Warcraft gives me insight to the civilian sector that I wouldn’t otherwise get from here,” he told me.
For McNulty and the rest, much of the day-to-day appeal in fighting the cyber war provided the thrill of these sort of meta war games. They’re like kids in arcades with the ultimate weapons and gizmos at their disposal. But as the military knows, recruiting and retaining skilled geeks in the age of Silicon Valley billionaire babies is one of the biggest threats to national security of all.
The military has been trying to harness popular technologies to lure – and train - war gamers into their fold for decades. Games from Battlezone in the 1980s to Doom in the 1990s have been modified for troop exercises. Then the Army teamed with hotshot videogame development companies to churn out games like Full Spectrum Warrior and the shooter America’s Army. Later the Army launched a new unit, Training and Doctrine Command’s Project Office for Gaming, which takes this to the new logical step: equipping soldiers with the ability to develop their own videogame simulations of warfare scenarios for training.
But convincing this generation to enlist is extra tough when they could be using their same brains to make millions in Silicon Valley. Some of the guys make no bones about their motivation for being here – to get the skills and find a high paying job as a civilian. One of the things they get with their training is the super-sweet security clearance – Top Secret. This clearance is valuably marketable in the commercial sector, where banks and other corporations are desperate for nimble geeks who can protect them for their own cyber attacks.
David Kushner is the author of many books, including Masters of Doom, Jonny Magic & the Card Shark Kids, Levittown, The Bones of Marianna, and Alligator Candy. A contributing editor of Rolling Stone, he has written for publications including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired, and The New York Times Magazine.