DARPA Funds Hackers To Innovate Military Tech

Cyber Fast Track effort will pay hackers and security researchers to accelerate development of tech ideas for the military.
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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on Thursday launched Cyber Fast Track, an effort to fund innovative cybersecurity efforts by groups and people who don't usually do work for the government, including hobbyists, boutique security labs, and other small groups of hackers, DARPA project manager Peiter "Mudge" Zatko announced at Black Hat, a UBM TechWeb event, in Las Vegas.

The Cyber Fast Track program, first announced at the annual ShmooCon cybersecurity conference in January, will fund between 20 and 100 projects a year, Zatko said. The short, fixed-price contracts will be awarded with little turnaround time--about 10 days from the receipt of proposals--based on a simple proposal template so as to lower the barrier to entry. Projects will be carried out over no more than a few months.

Cyber Fast Track will fund experimental projects, including commodity high-end computing, open software tools, and others, that might help the military. For example, Zatko raised possibilities like cheap unmanned aerial vehicles and an automated war-dialer that could repeatedly ring phones in a given area to discourage bomb-makers from building improvised explosive devices. Cyber Fast Track may also fund community efforts, possibly including a bug hunting exercise.

In addition to funding fast, cheap innovation that can later be leveraged by the Department of Defense, Zatko sees Cyber Fast Track as a way to link hackers up with government. "The way government is set up, it's almost impossible for the small businesses, the researchers, the hackers, to get money for research without giving up intellectual property or being purchased and having their company gutted," Zatko said. "I want to make it easier."

While some hackers may be reticent of the federal government, Zatko comes with impeccable hacker credentials. He was a member of the L0pht hacker group, created a famous password-cracking tool, and in 1998 testified before Congress that hackers could shut down the Internet in a half hour.

Zatko said that it is difficult for organizations like the L0pht to parse the legalese and government-talk in government contracts, and challenging for them to put together proposals. It takes too long and too much money for venture-backed companies, meanwhile, to justify crafting proposals.

When research is complete, researchers will be able to keep commercial rights to whatever they create, but the government will get government purpose rights that allow it to use, modify, repurpose, or release technical data on the projects in question. They may also be asked to present their efforts to a forum of undergraduate students at a U.S. military service academy, and will be encouraged to continue to update DARPA on the status of their projects once the contract has ended.

In his time at DARPA, Zatko has also been responsible for CINDER, a project that was initially reported by the government to be about insider threats, but which Zatko says is more about combating attacks like Stuxnet and next-generation advanced persistent threats.

What industry can teach government about IT innovation and efficiency. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek Government: Federal agencies have to shift from annual IT security assessments to continuous monitoring of their risks. Download it now. (Free registration required.)