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With so much at stake, companies turn to hired hackers

Aerospace industry firms such as Boeing are looking beyond traditional recruiting outlets for savvy techies as they try to fend off more coordinated and complex threats from hackers.

April 15, 2012|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
  • Boeing engineers Tin Tam, left, and Jarrad Sims can spend weeks testing the company’s computer systems on a platform they designed called “cyber range in a box.” The pair are college pals from Cal Poly Pomona.
Boeing engineers Tin Tam, left, and Jarrad Sims can spend weeks testing… (Christina House, For The…)

Most weekdays, Jarrad Sims and Tin Tam, a pair of college buddies, ride their bikes to a computer center and try to hack into computer security systems belonging to Boeing Co.

Rather than having them arrested, Boeing is paying them to do it — a situation that the car-loving, video-gaming friends have pronounced "awesome."

For two years, the young engineers have worked side by side in a secluded unit where they design and thoroughly test ironclad security systems for the largest aerospace company in the world. Boeing's systems need to be capable of staving off hackers and keeping safe some of the nation's most prized intellectual property.

Like many of their colleagues in surrounding cubicles, Sims, 25, and Tam, 24, spend much of their days devising, revising and analyzing complicated security programs that they then use their well-honed skills to attempt to crack.

The pair from Cal Poly Pomona were hired after they aced a cyber-security competition held by Boeing in which the aerospace giant urged students to consider careers in cyber security and, of course, scouted for fresh talent.

As computer threats become more coordinated and complex, Boeing and other defense contractors are bolstering their cyber-security staffs. Increasingly they are turning to unlikely characters like Sims and Tam, who as students had distinguished themselves more on simulated cyber battlefields than in classrooms.

"As long as there are computers, there will be somebody trying to attack them," said Sims, adding that teamwork at the office pays off. "We trust one another to stay on top of the threats."

The damage from hackers to consumers is well known, but the potential for corporate sabotage is far greater, and the need for cyber sleuths like those at Boeing is huge and growing.

Corporate computers serve thousands of employees engaging in different tasks and require layer upon layer of sophisticated security protection.

Those workers need access to the Internet. Although that access enables employees to get the information they need to do their jobs, it also opens a door for hackers to sneak through.

It's not just monolithic corporations at risk. Even small businesses are liable for lost or stolen data, said Scott Hauge, president of Small Business California, a small-business advocacy group.

"I recently had a client who owns a restaurant where credit card information got released to the public," he said. "As a result, MasterCard is looking to collect $200,000 in fines and he is also looking at numerous credit card holders bringing action against him."

Visa recently stated that 95% of credit card thefts originate at small businesses, Hauge said.

Such liability has driven demand for cyber-security expertise, said Richard A. Clarke, a former chief counter-terrorism advisor for the National Security Council and author of "Cyber War."

"There's an arms race in cyber right now," he said. "And the talent isn't just found at the MITs or Stanfords anymore. It's a whole new skill set."

A generation ago, the brightest engineers in the aerospace industry were typically recruited from Ivy League universities and other prestigious institutions.

Now defense contractors are broadening the hiring pool as they hunt for savvy young computer whizzes at local colleges.

Lynn A. Dugle, Raytheon Co.'s president of intelligence information systems businesses, said last year at a conference that her company's most impressive cyber-security hires have come from outside of traditional recruiting outlets.

One recruit was a man who didn't have a college education and didn't graduate from high school. He had a GED and worked at a pharmaceutical plant stuffing pills into bottles.

At night, he participated in online hacker competitions and outperformed others, Dugle said.

"That person would have not gotten through the normal Raytheon recruiting process," she said.

Boeing hired Sims and Tam more than two years ago along with four other Cal Poly Pomona classmates, most of whom have since left for other cyber-security jobs.

Each morning around 9 a.m., Sims and Tam, who live as roommates in Huntington Beach, ride their bicycles to work.

There they must flash a federal government-vetted identification, wind their way through a corridor and then gain access to the secluded cyber unit only after entering a special code.

Inside, not much distinguishes the cyber unit from any other office in the Southland.

It's a 3,000-square-foot room with cream-colored walls and floor-to-ceiling windows on a far wall that lets the afternoon sun stream in on row after row of slate-gray cubicles.

Their work space is a mini-fort of sorts, with 6-foot walls on four sides and small video cameras mounted near the entrance that enable team members to see who is coming their way.

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