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US military advisor calls for McKinnon pardon, recruitment of "master hackers"

Gesture will help Pentagon gain trust of hacking community, says Arquilla

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A leading US military strategist has urged the Obama administration to soften its stance if it wants to attract the kind of “master hackers” that would enable it to compete in cyber space with China, starting with the symbolic gesture of pardoning Gary McKinnon.

John Arquilla, a US Naval Postgraduate School professor and advisor to former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, wrote in Foreign Policy that the military needs to broaden its recruitment approach if it’s to fulfill a plan to grow Cyber Command five-fold to nearly 5,000 members.

Aside from persuading IT professionals to sign-up and “click for their country”, or using artificial intelligence, the best way to build out capacity in this area is to recruit more hackers, he argued.

However, by failing to act quickly it runs the risk of losing out on recruiting the small number of world-class “master hackers” who can “walk right through firewalls”.

“Hackers may be courted and pampered in China, Russia, and other countries, but in the United States they are often hunted by lawmen. The judicial system is very tough on them, too,” he said.

Just as the US chose to recruit, rather than persecute, the German rocket scientists after World War II who helped shape the space program, so it should look to the hacker community, said Arquilla.

Pardoning Pentagon hacker Gary McKinnon, who last year finally won his battle not to be extradited to the US, would send the right signal to the hacker community.

“One presidential act of mercy, such as in the case of McKinnon, won't entirely repair relations or build trust between hackers and the government, but it would be a strong signal of officialdom's growing awareness of the wisdom of embracing and employing the skills of these masters of their virtual domain,” said Arquilla.

The rhetoric around cyber warfare especially in relation to China has stepped up in recent days after several high profile newspapers including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal revealed they had been attacked by sophisticated and persistent campaigns launched from the People’s Republic.

The US is currently thought to be preparing a National Intelligence Estimate which is predicted to outline in stark terms the scale of the cyber threat from China. ®

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