DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and its Department of Defense partners, reached into the private sector this week in an unprecedented way through the first Cyber Colloquium, in search of talent and ideas. What was remarkable, was both how they have purposely streamlined the process to target a tremendous untapped talent pool and more shockingly is technology they are looking to develop: OFFENSIVE Cyber capabilities.
So serious in this new research direction, they are going after new talent, which although rich in skills, usually falls far outside the conservative circles they normally engage. DARPA and the defense agencies as a whole are configured to work with large and professional companies. Unfortunately, 'weaponizing' computer systems into offensive options for military branches is a skill not commonly found in such traditional contract partners. Those relationships have evolved to become very formal and bureaucratic affairs, taking tremendous time, resources, and oversight. This is crushing to timelines and potential engagements with smaller groups not familiar with the process or possessing the necessary patience and resources to traverse the gauntlet of the submission, review, and selection. The smart folks at DARPA have realized this and instituted a rapid evaluation process ‘Cyber Fast Track’ tailored to individuals, small teams, and non-traditional defense contract organizations with a turnaround averaging 5 days from submission to approval and kickoff of actual project work.
Research and innovation is their business. It is no great surprise they are adapting their mining efforts to stay in touch with the best resources. After all, this is the agency who grandfathered the Internet. Streamlining the process to close the gap between DARPA project teams and external innovation talent is to be expected. The impressive reduction of stifling bureaucracy is impressive, but not the real story of this first of its kind Cyber Colloquium.
Presenting to a select and vetted audience, DARPA repeatedly made clear the new direction in research for the US defense community. DARPA is looking to develop offensive cyber capabilities. This is an overt request for ideas, research, and prototypes to arm military branches to not only defend their own compute environments, but offensive capabilities to attack adversaries. The US is likely not the first nation to seek offensive cyber weapons, but it is a radical new direction for DARPA, driven by policy makers.
We are truly at a momentous point in history. Will computers become the weapons of choice in the future? We may be at the start of an escalating weapons race, for the proliferation of offensive capabilities, on a scale that has not been witnessed since the cold war. Unlike those in history, this may expand to include, involve, and impact the computer systems in the hands of everyday people around the world.