DARPA to Turn off Funding for Hackers Pursuing Cybersecurity Research


Cyber Fast Track program underwrites proposals from academics and pranksters alike.

The Pentagon is scuttling a program that awards grants to reformed hackers and security professionals for short-term research with game-changing potential, according to cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab.

The Cyber Fast Track program, first reported by Nextgov, is managed by Peiter Zatko, a gray-hat hacker himself who goes by the nickname "Mudge." The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency initiative seeds months-long research on strategies, as opposed to multi-year, multi-million dollar systems that, the thinking goes, proceed slower than hackers’ brains. Bad actors typically devise new threats faster than it takes most government-funded efforts to develop protections. 

"CFT is ending because it was an experiment. DARPA isn't an open organization. We were looking for a new way to work with people," Zatko said on Wednesday at a conference in Vancouver, according to Kaspersky Lab. "The back end is what's designed to transition so other large organizations can use this. I hope they look for more people who look at this and say, Mudge did it and he got out mostly intact."

DARPA officials on Wednesday evening said Zatko would not be able to respond before this story's publication. When asked to confirm the report, officials referred to a recent contracting bulletin that changed the deadline for new project proposals from August 3 to April 1. 

Kaspersky Lab noted, "The CFT program is ending, as of April 1, which is the last day that new proposals will be accepted." It is unclear when current or future projects will be cut off. Fast Track has supported roughly 100 endeavors since launching in 2011 with Zatko, formerly of the now-defunct hacker collective L0pht, at the helm.

The latest, and apparently last, application form describes the motivation behind DARPA’s undertaking as follows:  "For the time and money currently invested for one program, the government is striving to engage in dozens of programs. The government needs agile cyber projects that are smaller in effort, have a potential for large payoff, and result in a rapid turnaround, creating a greater cost to the adversary to counter.”

Recent and ongoing projects include investigating forensic evidence on Mac OS X-based machines, and developing software in support of a  command and control system for disposable computers that are dropped from a drone into an area of interest. 

(Image via Laborant/Shutterstock.com)