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Help Wanted: Hackers

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Pavel Ignatov

The Obama administration this week accused China’s military of mounting attacks on American government computer systems and defense contractors. Commentator Rena Pederson says it’s just one example of a growing problem – one that could be at least partly addressed in the classroom.

Google.  Bank of America. The U.S. Treasury Department.

They're just a few of the victims hit by cyber-attacks that stymied their computer operations.

Before he left office, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned the U.S. is facing a "cyber Pearl Harbor."  He said  "An aggressor national or extremist group could gain control of critical switches and derail passenger trains, or trains loaded with lethal chemicals.  They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country."

There is already plenty of evidence of the national security danger: 

In a single intrusion, hackers stole 24,000 files containing Pentagon data. Before that, hackers stole plans for a $300 billion fighter jet. And penetrated the Air Force's air traffic control system.

To make matters worse, we may not have the talent graduating from our public schools to out-hack the hackers who are stealing into our government offices and financial institutions. We need software coders who can build better firewalls to protect us and we need the equivalent of cyber Navy Seals who can penetrate threatening systems.

James Gosler, a cyber security specialist at the Sandia National Laboratory, estimates there are only 1,000 people in the United States with the ultra-sophisticated skills needed for cyber defense. He says we need 20,000 to 30,000.

While we have been inching along, other countries have been racing ahead to develop troops for information warfare.  Iranian hackers recently were able to capture one of the Pentagon's RQ-170 drones.  They tricked the unmanned aircraft into thinking it was landing in Afghanistan.  Cyber attacks traced to China have become so frequent and alarming that President Obama mentioned it in his first congratulatory call to the new Chinese President Xi Jinping.

What are these countries doing that we aren't?  In China, Iran, and Russia, young hackers are scouted like the star athletes that are recruited here for sports teams.  They are groomed to become cyber warriors.  You can see the results in global cyber competitions: In the World Finals of the International Collegiate Programming Contest, which is sponsored by IBM, the top medal awards for the last five years have gone to China and Russia. Only one American university was in the top ten this year - Harvard placed seventh. MIT was 18th.

It's time for America to get in the game.  We have to start by training more teachers who can inspire students to study algebra.  A program created at The University of Texas in Austin recruits college students brainy enough to major in math and science to become classroom teachers. More than 6,000 students are now enrolled in UTeach programs at 34 campuses, including - the University of North Texas, U-T Arlington and U-T Dallas.

But more universities and more students across the country need to sign up.  The White House estimates the U.S. will need as many as 100,000 more math and science teachers in the next five years.

We need to support grassroots efforts such as "Commit" in the Dallas School District, or charter schools like Uplift and KIPP Academy, or the National Math and Science Initiative, headquartered in Dallas.  We need to spend more money on education, not less. And expand Advanced Placement programs in math and science so more of our students will be college ready.

We shouldn't have to wait until our ATMs or the gas pumps or the lights aren't working because another country hacked in. It's time to build up our supply of human talent just like we build up our supply of planes and tanks when we need to.  The planes and tanks aren't going to do much good if the Pentagon computers are shut down.

Rena Pederson is a Dallas journalist and former communications advisor at the U.S. State Department.