US National Security Agency

NSA chief Keith Alexander tries to win over hackers at cyber fair

Cybersecurity specialists are asked to help make the US government's surveillance programmes better, but many still have privacy concerns

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

It doesn't get much stranger, even in Las Vegas.

General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, stood in front of a crowd, selling the idea of US government surveillance programmes.

His audience? More than 3,000 cybersecurity specialists, including some of the world's best hackers, an unruly community that is known for its support of civil liberties and scepticism of the government's three-letter agencies.

Alexander praised the group as one of the brightest collections of technical minds in the world. He asked them to help the NSA fulfil its mission of protecting the country, while also protecting privacy.

"We stand for freedom," Alexander said. "Help us to defend the country and develop a better solution."

But some in the crowd were not buying, and one hacker hurled an expletive back at him. "I'm saying I don't trust you," one shouted.

The annual hackers' conference is called Black Hat. It serves as a platform for hacking seminars, partying and policy discussions about what the government and corporate worlds ought to be doing to confront problems such as cyberespionage and the cyberattacks.

Most Black Hat participants are actually "white hat" hackers - security professionals whose careers are built around using their technical skills to thwart the bad guys.

This year's conference comes at an especially interesting time, as hackers from China, Russia and other countries continue relentless attacks into corporate, academic and government computers, presumably as part of spying initiatives backed by the private sector, foreign governments and criminal groups.

It also follows the unprecedented disclosures of top-secret documents by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, detailing wide-ranging data collection and surveillance programmes by the agency. The disclosures have prompted intense criticism from civil liberties advocates and some lawmakers.

The appearance of Alexander seems to be part of a public relations campaign to better explain what the NSA is doing and the oversight under which it is operating.

Some participants viewed the latest disclosures about the agency's programmes as undercutting Alexander's remarks. Charlie Miller, a security executive at Twitter, questioned whether Alexander's statements last year were true. He decided to skip the NSA director's speech.

"Everybody agrees. You told us you were good and you're not," said Miller, himself a former NSA employee. "So go home."

Despite the scepticism, a significant proportion of the hackers who attended Alexander's presentation said that they approved of it.