The Pentagon Scrambles to Win Hearts and Minds in Silicon Valley
Policy + Politics

The Pentagon Scrambles to Win Hearts and Minds in Silicon Valley

REUTERS/The Fiscal Times

The U.S. Defense Department is stepping up its efforts to collaborate with Silicon Valley, hoping to attract the best and brightest into government service and boost its ability to equip American troops with cutting-edge technology.

The multi-pronged approach announced in earnest on Wednesday introduced a somewhat commonly used recruiting tool in Silicon Valley: a hack-a-thon.

Related: The Pentagon Has Invaded Silicon Valley, and It’s Already Producing Results

“Hack the Pentagon,” the federal government’s first “bug bounty” effort, will kick off in April as high-tech specialists try to breach the Pentagon’s public Internet pages to show how bad actors might be able to infiltrate the building’s networks, which are believed to be attacked millions of times every day.

Sensitive networks and weapons programs won’t be offered up for the event.

“Inviting responsible hackers to test our cybersecurity certainly meets that test. I am confident this innovative initiative will strengthen our digital defense and ultimately enhance our national security,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a statement.

The particulars of who will be able to compete are still being worked out, though participants will have to be U.S. citizens, according to the defense officials.

Related: The Next Arms Race for the US, China and Russia: Hypersonic Weapons

The department’s latest outreach goes beyond a scheme that could serve as the plot to a Hollywood action flick. It also announced that Alphabet Executive Chair Eric Schmidt will head up a new panel – the Defense Innovation Advisory Board -- to bring Silicon Valley's best corporate practices to the Pentagon.

Schmidt will hand pick 12 panel members from the public- and private-sectors who have proven themselves tech-savvy and good at identifying new trends and potential breakthroughs with the hope that some of those brainstorms could be applied at the Pentagon.

Carter is on a good will tour of the West Coast with stops in California and Washington State intended to augment the steps he took last year when he established the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental, a Pentagon hub in Mountain View, California, a high-tech mecca.

While the agency’s Washington Beltway image may not compare favorably with the sunny environs of the West Coast, Carter is hoping its enormous bottom line might.

Related: Half a Trillion for the Pentagon? Why Defense Spending Is Only Going Higher

Speaking at an annual conference in San Francisco hosted by the security company RSA,  he noted that the department wants to spend $72 billion next year on research and development programs across the board – including projects in robotics, hypersonic weapons and undersea drone platforms.

The department wants to spend about $35 billion over the next five years on cybersecurity alone, according to previously undisclosed budget documents obtained by Bloomberg. That figure includes roughly $14 billion for offensive operations against the country’s adversaries and military activities in space.

Carter, a physicist, also told the RSA audience that he favored strong encryption and isn’t a “believer in back doors.” He was referring to a legal battle between  Apple and  the FBI. Law enforcement officials want the tech giant to create a key to unlock the phone used by one of the gunman responsible for the shooting in San Bernardino, California last year. The FBI maintains it is not asking for permanent back doors to encrypted information.

Carter’s comments drew applause, but that’s a long way from winning hearts and minds.

“We are you. You pay us. We represent you and our job is to protect you, and we’d love to have your help,” he implored at the end of his remarks.