Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency, asked hackers for help securing cyberspace when he spoke at the Defcon conference late last month.
"This is the world's best cybersecurity community," said Alexander, who also heads the U.S. Cyber Command. "In this room right here is the talent our nation needs to secure cyberspace."
Hackers can and must be part of a collaborative approach with the government and private industry, he said. "You know that we can protect networks and have civil liberties and privacy, and you can help us get there."
Alexander congratulated the organizers of Defcon Kids, an event held to teach children how to be white-hat hackers, and described the initiative as superb.
He stressed the need for better information sharing between private industry and the government. Pointing out that the country can't take steps to thwart cyberattacks that aren't on its radar screen, Alexander said it would be helpful if businesses could share information from their intrusion-detection systems with the NSA in real time. He added that the agency currently has no way to predict if, for instance, Wall Street is facing a threat.
The next step would be to jointly develop standards to help secure critical infrastructure and other sensitive networks, he said.
Already, the hacker community has built many of the tools needed to protect cyberspace and should continue to create even better ones, he said, giving the example of Metasploit and other penetration-testing tools.
"Sometimes you guys get a bad rap," he said. "From my perspective, what you're doing to figure out vulnerabilities in our systems is great. You guys hold the line."
According to a New York Times report, Alexander had earlier revealed that there was a 17-fold increase in cyberattacks against U.S. infrastructure between 2009 and 2011.
This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.