DARPA seeks security expertise from a nontraditional source: the hacker community

The program, called Cyber Fast Track, will reward security research done within "a matter of months and at a small price tag."

The Defense Department plans to fund independent security researchers and experimental projects in a bid to invigorate the federal government's "unsustainable" approach to cybersecurity, said Peiter "Mudge" Zatko, a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Zatko made the announcement Jan. 28 in a keynote speech at ShmooCon, an annual security research conference in Washington.

The program, called Cyber Fast Track, will reward security research done within "a matter of months and at a small price tag." Its emphasis on slimmer, unconventional solutions will rope in nontraditional players, such as hobbyists, startups and hacker spaces -- a term the security community uses in reference to technology-oriented collectives and experimental spaces, Zatko said, in follow-up e-mail.

The program aims to implement cybersecurity projects faster, he said. Awardees would retain commercial rights over their work.

While not excluding traditional performers, such as research institutions, the program would support work that has been conducted mostly under the radar but is catching the eye of the government.

"Since the early '80s there has been some contingent of cyber researchers and hobbyists operating in low-budget settings," said Zatko, formerly affiliated with the freewheeling Boston-based hacker collective L0pht, known for its 1998 Senate testimony that it could shut down the Internet in 30 minutes. The limited resources these groups operate on "forces them to be extremely creative," he said.

Yet it is "really painful" for small organizations to engage the government because its institutions have been "set up for multimillion-dollar, multiyear-long efforts," Zatko said in his keynote. DARPA hopes the approach used with Cyber Fast Track can be applied elsewhere in Defense, he added.

Current cybersecurity strategy involves layering costly defensive security applications onto large IT infrastructures, which isn't sustainable, he said.

Total federal cybersecurity spending from 2010 to 2015 is expected to reach $55 billion, according to a forecast by Market Research Media. The market for cybersecurity products is likely to grow to $10 billion this year, an 11 percent increase from 2010, according to Bloomberg Government.

Ramping up the use of defensive applications is a necessary means of "buying tactical breathing space," but it has proved, in some instances, counterproductive, Zatko said.

A vulnerability watch-list created by Joint Task Force-Global Network Operations, now a wing of U.S. Cyber Command, showed that at one point, six of 17 vulnerabilities monitored by the task force could be traced to the security software itself being deployed to "fix" the system, such as antivirus suites.

DARPA research in environments the agency had access to found that defensive applications took up 10 million lines of code, compared to 125 lines of code found in 9,000 samples of malware.

Lines of code are an indication of the exploitable surface area of a system and the cost required to maintain and protect it. An IBM metric suggests that for every 1,000 lines of code, one to five bugs are introduced.

"You're spending all this effort layering on all this extra security," Zatko said, "and it turns out that's introducing more vulnerabilities."

Federal requirements to create uniform systems amplifies the chances that bugs are reproduced across all the systems sharing those features, he said, highlighting an OMB mandate that called for agencies to standardize their use of Windows-operated systems.

Addressing the ShmooCon crowd, which he referred to as "the community that I came from [and] I still relate to," Zatko said, "I want you guys to stay like you are. You are more valuable doing the kind of work that you're doing the way you're doing it now."