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Cyber Dudes to the Rescue

Can Anyone Defend Our Computer Infrastructure From Terrorism? The U.S. Is Betting That a Small Group of Computer Geeks Can Help, Assuming They Behave Themselves.

November 17, 2002|Janet Reitman | Janet Reitman's last story for the magazine was a profile of David Rosenthal, a television writer who left Hollywood, at least temporarily, and moved to New York.

Mark Davis, of course, has excellent skills. He could use them for good or bad. Good seems to be a reasonable choice right now. It pays. It's "funner." Plus, Mark is a pragmatist. Life, he explains, is kind of like math. You're born, you live, and at the end you tally up your experiences hoping that the cool side of the ledger is longer than the boring side. True, Mark is going to work for "The Man," and he worries that he might have to lose his eyebrow ring, which would be a bummer. On the other hand, he's the son of a millwright from Broken Arrow, Okla., and his education is being paid for by the feds. Getting paid to hack using some of the most high-tech equipment on the planet might be worth a few sacrifices and a background check, particularly if it means he can work for a super-cool agency like the NSA.

"That agency didn't even admit it existed until a few years ago," says Mark. "You've got to figure if you want to get into the really hairy stuff, that's where it's gonna be."

He says he really has no idea what kind of "hairy stuff" the NSA might be up to, though he assumes it involves the same type of high-tech gadgetry as was portrayed in the hacker-friendly movie "Enemy of the State."

"I just want to be privy to all of the secrets and not be able to tell anybody," Mark grins. "It's a power trip kind of thing."

It's a blustery evening, and Mark and his friend Gavin Manes, 25, are kicking back at a Tulsa pub called the Slow Duck Saloon. Both are happily drinking, though Gavin--whose girlfriend has requested that he come home sober--swears he'll limit himself to one beer. (He has three.) Mark is on his third Long Island iced tea, a drink he loves primarily because it has more alcohol than any other drink. Which isn't to say he's drunk. He's 6-foot-1 and built like a defensive tackle.

"I'm trying to get drunk," he says, smoking a cigarette. Drinking is pretty much the only vice Mark can admit to right now. "I'm trying to be good," he says sarcastically.

"So check this out," says Gavin. "This guy called the other day and said he'd stolen a Porsche in California."

"He stole it?"

Gavin clarifies: "No, no. It wasn't like he stole the car. It was one of those things where you have to be the 102nd caller to this radio station and you win a car. So he hacked in and took over the phone system."

"Dude, that's awesome." Mark grins. He's hacked the phone system, too, he says, back in the day when he was about 14. When he was 13, he made a "red box," which is a device that essentially tricks a pay phone into thinking it's a quarter. (This is not to be mistaken for a "blue box," which tricks a phone into thinking it's an operator.) This is kind of a secret--one of many, I suspect.

There seems to be a subtle don't-ask-too-much/don't-tell-everything ethos built into Cyber Corps. "A few indiscretions during your 'experimental years' won't necessarily exclude you from serving your country," says Mike Orenstein, spokesman at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which vets most of the Cyber Corps students.

"From what I gather, there's, like, the past and, like, there's now," says Mark. "And as long as you don't lie about anything, it's cool." He, like everyone in the program, signed a contract that will bind him to a background check and polygraph test if they're required by the agency hiring him. Until then, he's been instructed to avoid situations and behaviors that would prevent him from getting security clearance.

"I can't think of anything I'm doing illegal now." Mark frowns. He feels incredibly tame. He even stopped playing with his band, he says, because band practice cut into his study schedule. His old friends don't understand the new Mark. "They want to party, and I'm like, I gotta go home and go to bed." He sighs. "I miss being young and reckless."

But you're still young, I suggest.

"Yeah, but I'm not reckless. I miss being reckless." He sighs again. "You can only be reckless for so long and so far."

"Dude, that's such a lame thing to say," says Gavin, flashing a rakish grin. A doctoral student in computer science, Gavin is not part of the scholarship for service component of the program, which stops at the master's degree level; he's a student mentor, a paid position that also falls under the Cyber Corps umbrella. This is fine by Gavin, who admits that his true goal is to prolong graduation as long as possible. "And, of course, to be totally overpaid in the private sector," he adds.

Mark regards this remark with a blase shrug. "Dude, I was totally overpaid in the private sector when I was 19." (He made a living for a while, he explains, writing software for a consulting firm that served phone billing companies.)

Gavin smirks. "Yeah, but now you guys have to--I mean, get to--work for the government."

Mark pretends this doesn't annoy him. "Dude, think about it. We get a master's degree, government experience, security clearances.... "

"Two years." Gavin makes it sound excruciating.

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