When a US embassy employee in East Asia clicked on an e-mail attachment in May, 2006, she inadvertently unleashed the largest cyberattack ever launched against the State Department. The breach permitted China-based attackers to insert malicious computer code into the department’s networks throughout the region.
A cyber-threat response team leapt into action and toiled 24/7 for 2 weeks to isolate the code and develop a patch that officials claim prevented a gargantuan breach.
Unfortunately, State is better equipped to handle cyberattacks than other parts of the federal government. And 2 months later, the Bureau of Industry and Security, a part of the Commerce Department that oversees exports of technology that has both commercial and military uses, was attacked in similar fashion.
The attack was not recognized for days and Commerce was never able to determine when the initial intrusion took place (Commerce claims there is no evidence data was compromised as a result).
Commerce and other parts of government are trying to improve their performance in this regard, but their efforts are often stymied by a marked shortage of skilled computer-security workers, from front-line technicians to so called Security Generals.
Meanwhile, according to the Government Accountability Office, the number of probes, scans and attacks reported to the Homeland Security Department’s Computer Emergency Readiness Team more than tripled between 2006 and 2008, from 5,500 to 16,840.
The manpower shortage is impacting Pentagon efforts to staff-up a new Cyber Command and Homeland Security’s plans to increase it’s cyber-staff by 1,000 people over in the next 3 years.
The intense demand has sparked bidding wars among agencies and contractors for a small pool of special talent: skilled technicians with security clearances. Some young people with 3 years’ experience and a clearance are commanding salaries over $100,000.
Philip Reitinger, deputy undersecretary of Homeland Security’s National Protection and Programs Directorate, conceded he couldn’t match private sector pay scales. “But in government,” he told the Washington Post, “one can have a bigger ability to effect change at an earlier place in your career than anywhere else.” he said.
Besides, Reitinger added, “your country needs you.”