18 Sep 2013

Insatiable demand for IT experts undermines state security

The tragic events in Washington DC highlight the challenge military and security establishments face when it comes to the increasingly devolved world of IT.

More details have emerged about Aaron Alexis, who shot dead 12 people at a naval base on Monday. Questions are being asked about how a man with a troubled and violent history was able to gain the secret-level security clearance needed to access the base.Flags At Half Staff In Washington After Tucson Shooting

But his story – and also those of recent whistleblowers – also shows how difficult the vetting process has become in a world where technology is increasingly at the heart of operations.

Alexis worked for The Experts, an IT firm headquartered in Florida. He was subcontracted by Hewlett Packard to work on internal computer systems for the US Navy.

The Experts said it carried out two background checks, which only flagged up one minor traffic offence, and confirmed his clearance with the Department of Defense.

Somehow, Alexis slipped through the net, and he’s not the first IT expert to cause huge problems for the US military and security establishments.

Clearly the violent incidents at Navy Yard are a world away from whistleblowing. But there are parallels with the cases of Bradley Manning, who leaked a giant cache of documents to the website Wikileaks, and Edward Snowden, who was subcontracted by contractor Booz Allen Hamilton to work for the US National Security Agency.

Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, even though at the lowly rank of Private, had access to a trove of classified information and downloaded hundreds of thousands of sensitive diplomatic cables and army reports.

Snowden, even though a sub-contractor to the NSA, claimed that as a systems administrator he had access to (and more importantly the ability to download) information at the highest level. His continued publication of top secret documents seems to support this.

Highly-skilled technologists like these are in increasingly vital and sought-after resource for all branches of military and security worldwide.

The outgoing head of the Department for Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said its cyber security staffing has increased 600% – but they’re still hunting for another 600 specialists.

In the UK, the head of GCHQ has lamented how hard it is for Government agencies to compete with commercial players for the best tech brains.

No wonder there’s pressure on these establishments to open up access to lower ranks and outside contractors.

And here’s the dilemma: technology works best when it’s shared and open – but those goals often do not sit comfortably with the apparatus of state.

Follow @GeoffWhite247 on Twitter