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Tracey E.Schelmetic

[September 4, 2002]

Dot Com Commerce

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Managing Editor, CUSTOMER INTER@CTION Solutions

The War Between The White Hats And The Black Hats

There is a war going on today in this country. You may not be aware of it, but it affects you. It affects your credit rating, your financial information, your passwords and bank account numbers, your personal medical records, even your very identityanything that is stored anywhere within a computer.

The war is between the "white hats" and the "black hats."

Simply put, "white hats" are hackers and computer engineers who work to protect you and your information (think "The Lone Gunmen" from X-Files). They fight "black hats," who are the hackers who break into government computer systems, or steal your Visa card number and sell it on the Internet to some 15-year-old who wants to spend four hours and $1,200 on a pay-for-porn Web site.

The black hats are winning.

First, let me backtrack and discuss how I arrived at this topic this morning. While browsing through some of today's headlines, I noticed a couple of stories that seemed to instantly link together in a mad way. I thought it merited observationso bear with me while I expound on a seemingly unrelated topic.

There's been a lot of ink lately on childhood obesity. In the last 10 years, health care practitioners have observed, with some alarm, that the percentage of overweight and obese children has skyrocketed. High-fat, high-sugar fast foods and snacks, not to mention soda, are often justifiably blamed. Compounding the intake of food with poor nutritional value is the corresponding decrease in school spending on physical education due to budget cuts, plus a more sedentary leisure life spent in front of the TV and DVD playerand the computer and its game console. I think this one is more important than the food connectionmy generation ate scads of nutritionally-challenged foods, and while some kids in school were overweight, it was the exception, not the norm.

Wired News recently printed a story called, "Tech Smart Kids Pay In Pounds." This makes sense, I thoughta lot of the most tech-savvy people I know are self-taught. They carry around reams of knowledge gained through thousands of hours of hands-on experience behind a computer. These are the people who sit at their computers late at night and into the wee hours of the morning, the screen reflecting off the glasses they inevitably have to wear due to a case of permanent monitor-related eye strain. I hate to stereotypebut here it comesfew of them are triathlon competitors. It seems, from recent news, that this divide between the jocks and the geeks is even greater in the next up-and-coming generation of the American workforce, which is busy working its way through middle school and puberty right now.

The second story I spotted on Wired News had to do with an alarming lack of skilled white-hat hacker types in the FBI. Lately, we haven't had to go far to find stories on the abysmal failures of the FBI to prevent terrorism, identify criminals, communicate with other government agencies, or even just give credible and competent press conferences. Their computer systems were a joke ten years ago, now they are just plain scary; their "experts" minimally experienced. But the most interesting part of the article dealt with the fact that the really skilled people, those computer geniuses who know how to think like the wicked-bad-naughty black-hat hackers, can't get into the FBI.

They can't pass the fitness requirements.

Isn't this ironic? The same federal and state governments that continually cut education dollars in areas they deem unimportant (i.e., physical education), are under threat because they don't have enough computer experts in the FBI. Why not? Many of the experts can't pass the fitness, age, health, education or morality (clean record) standards set by the agency that's supposed to protect the rest of us.

Fitness requirements aside, to be considered as a candidate as an FBI special agent with a career emphasis on IT, you must be between the ages of 23 and 37, have a Bachelor's degree in computer science, have perfect hearing and uncorrected vision better than 20/200, be in top physical condition with no "defects," and be of excellent moral, upstanding character. What this means is you can have no felony or major misdemeanor convictions, and no history of any kind of illegal drug usage. (Yes, that's "usage" not "conviction.") How do they know you're not crossing your fingers behind your back during the interview? They give you a polygraph test.

Solet's put it in black and white terms. Remember that guy or girl you went to high school with, who never did anything Mother wouldn't approve of, who studied what he/she was told, memorized huge tracts of textbooks (though didn't necessarily absorb the ideas), always drove 55 mph on the highway while wearing a seatbelt, exercised every morning without fail and never once considered treading over the boundaries set by moral society? (I'll avoid using the term "drip" here.)

That's who works for the government.

Remember the other guy you went to high school with? The brilliant one who couldn't apply himself, ate pizza for all three meals a day, rarely studied though still passed classes, never saw a rule he didn't break, never met an authority figure he respected and believed laws were put in place for the sole reason to give him some amusement while he ignored them?

That's who works for the bad guys.

Know why? The bad guys don't care if you can't run five miles. The rest of us, in the meantime, can comfort ourselves with the fact that everyone who works for the government agencies that stand between us and global disaster at the very least have their cholesterol levels under control.

The author, who couldn't run five miles in three weeks, let alone 30 minutes, may be contacted at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com.

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