Taking a leap into the unknown

Sun-Tzu, the great ancient Chinese military general and strategist, famously said: “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” He was a very wise man and his iconic work, the Art of War, is popular among successful politicians and businessmen and women all around the world.

We’re talking about Sun-Tzu because we speculate that Keith B Alexander, a top man at the National Security Agency (NSA), has recently brushed the dust off his version of the book and had a good peruse to explore new ideas.

His speech at the 20th annual Def Con convention, which is attended by and aimed at hackers, suggests that he’s keen on exploring non-traditional avenues to make the internet a safer place. He certainly was in an affable and accommodating mood, turning up in jeans and a t-shirt. It was a statement that said: “I’m not the enemy.”

“In this room, this room right here is the talent our nation needs to secure cyberspace,” Mr Alexander told the audience. “We need great talent. We don’t pay as high as everybody else, but we’re fun to be around.”

The appearance of a senior member of the NSA, the US government’s influential and power security agency, is unprecedented in the country’s history. His language was placatory: “You know that we can protect networks and have civil liberties and privacy; and you can help us get there.”

What he’s promoting is essentially collaboration. He’s not condoning those who engage in criminal behaviour, exploiting networks for commercial reasons or in the name of extremism, political or religious. Such individuals or groups will be found and prosecuted.

Instead, he’s after those who show a promise in this field, precocious youngsters who are bored, those who feel like they are engaging in legitimate protest – the digital manifestation of civil disobedience, for example – who can make a difference to the world if mentored.

“From my perspective, what you’re doing to figure out the vulnerabilities in our systems is absolutely needed,” Mr Alexander said.

If anything, it’s a novel approach and certainly an interesting way in recruiting talent. At a push perhaps, it also implies that there are gaps in knowledge and indeed in the number of specialists. He could certainly do a lot more to attract those who have a gift in this area by actually making an effort to improve public sector pay in this area.

Fun is great; don’t get us wrong, but everyone wants to earn a decent living. Match private sector pay and you’ll have a generation of talent doing a lot of good. Make people feel valued. Sun-Tzu knew that:

“For them to perceive the advantage of defeating the enemy, they must also have their rewards.”

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