Tech opportunities abound in cyberwarfare work, especially in…

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1of10Computer hacker silhouette. Green binary code background
2of10An diver prop is displayed at a booth at the South By Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas, U.S., on Sunday, March 10, 2019. The SXSW conference provides an opportunity for global professionals at every level to participate, network, and advance their careers. Photographer: Callaghan O'Hare/Bloomberg
3of10The University of Texas at San Antonio and the National Security Agency signed a formal agreement Monday, Nov. 26, 2018, to offer accelerated degree plans in cyber security and modern languages.
4of10Rachel Dendiu, a project manager at Booz Allen Hamilton, shows a Sailor how to use an augmented reality headset at a technology fair held at Naval Submarine Base New London, Feb. 15
5of10WASHINGTON, DC – FEBRUARY 14: Gen. Raymond A. Thomas, Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on February 14, 2019 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on the U.S. Cyber Command defense authorization request for FY2020. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
6of10Director of Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) Jeremy Fleming (L) reacts as Britain's Queen Elizabeth II unveils a wall plaque as she attends an event to mark the centenary of GCHQ, the UK's Intelligence, Security and Cyber Agency, at Watergate House in London on February 14, 2019. – Watergate House was the GCHQ's first home as the 'Government Code and Cypher School' and a former top secret location. Today, as one of Britain's three intelligence agencies, GCHQ tackles the most serious cyber, terrorist, criminal, and state threats. (Photo by Niklas HALLE'N / AFP)NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP/Getty Images
7of10LGS Innovations hopes to establish a regional hub for cyber programs at Port San Antonio's new Project Tech facility.
8of10Ben Poernomo, the CTOC Director of Operations with IBM Security, speaking with trainees during a simulated cyber attack on a fictional organization inside the IBM Security X-Force Command training truck in Austin, Tx. on October 23, 2018.
9of10Executive Director of Information Security Engineering and Cyber Operations Joe Arthur speaks about the measures that USAA takes to keep the enterprise and customers secure at USAA's headquarters in San Antonio, Friday, Oct. 26, 2018.
10of10Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, center, shares a laugh with Facebook’s Cybersecurity Programs and Operations Manager Stephanie Siteman, right, and Texas A&M-San Antonio University President Cynthia Teniente Matson, left, Wednesday, August 29, 2018. The university and Facebook announced a partnership through Facebook’s Cyber Security University Program.

Uncle Sam needs coders.

As the nation becomes more dependent on digital systems for storing information, operating critical services and monitoring potential threats, the federal government needs tech talent. But finding good help is hard, which is why Booz Allen Hamilton, a consulting and technology firm working with federal agencies, was at the SXSW Conference and Festivals in Austin.

“We’re at an important nexus where we are trying to modernize the force to fight a different kind of battle with different capabilities, techniques and technologies,” said Karen Dahut, executive vice president of the firm’s global defense business. “It’s going to require all of us to come together in a new and unique way to modernize that force.”

Booz Allen tries to collect the right technologies and capabilities to help clients solve their hardest problems, and in the defense business, cyber is a top challenge, Dahut said. The company hires tech workers, buys tech start-ups and partners with others.

“Probably a full 50 percent to 60 percent of our portfolio in defense is aligned to that kind of technical capability,” she explained.

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Out of 700 Booz Allen employees in Texas, most are in San Antonio working with the Air Force’s intelligence and cyber warfare command or the National Security Agency’s operations center. In Austin, the firm operates a Center for Defense Innovation, where it works with the Army’s Futures Command. Dahut said both offices are expanding.

Attracting tech talent for defense projects, though, can be tricky. In the past year, protests by software engineers at Google, Amazon and Microsoft have made those corporations rethink their partnerships with the Department of Defense.

Google said it would not renew a contract working on the Pentagon’s Project Maven, which employs artificial intelligence to analyze footage and data collected by drones. Some top engineers quit Google last April in protest, complaining that military contracts violate the company’s ethos of “don’t be evil.”

Last month, Microsoft workers wrote an open letter to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to protest a contract to build HoloLens augmented reality goggles for the Defense Department.

“We are alarmed that Microsoft is working to provide weapons technology to the U.S. military, helping one country’s government ‘increase lethality’ using tools we built,” the letter reads. “We did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used.”

Part of the problem comes from these companies employing workers from dozens of countries. Some worry about when or whether the U.S. will use those systems on their families.

Not all defense work, though, is lethal. And the threats from cyber warfare and cyber crime are potentially disastrous.

At SXSW, Booz Allen CEO Horacio Rozanksi shared the stage with former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to explain how the federal government offers the opportunity to address the world’s toughest problems. Booz Allen Vice President Kevin Coggins talked about vulnerabilities in the current tech ecosystem.

“The start-up community does not understand the mission of defense,” Dahut said. “They understand the technology, but they don’t know how to apply it to the Department of Defense.”

In San Antonio, many of the entrepreneurs and their teams are veterans working to solve problems they experienced firsthand. Local universities, including the University of Texas at San Antonio, are specifically preparing students to work in cyber warfare and cyber crime.

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“I think UTSA is a model for other university systems where they have chosen a specific focus around cyber and technology and built a whole program around entrepreneurism,” Dahut said. “Booz Allen Hamilton is really well positioned in this marketplace to help the small technology company that really wants to get a foothold into working for the government. But we’re also in the business of helping the government solve its most intractable problems.”

I spent seven years as a U.S. Army signals intelligence analyst, mostly working with the National Security Agency to monitor the Soviet Union. I know the best technology is necessary to gather the critical intelligence that keeps the nation safe and prevents armed conflict. Entrepreneurs and engineers should recognize the difference between developing lethal weapons and designing intelligence systems.

Helping Uncle Sam protect the nation from cyber-attack is not only a noble mission but a potentially lucrative field for tech experts. And there are plenty of opportunities right here in Texas.

Tomlinson writes commentary about business, economics and policy.

chris.tomlinson@chron.com

twitter.com/cltomlinson

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