Hackers are forming straight-laced companies and selling their services for big bucks to the very businesses that are most afraid of them. And as the demand for hacking grows, the once-dark art is becoming a 9-to-5 day job with a public and a private sector, even corporate recruiters.
From NSA Recruit to Corporate Recruiter
Vincent Liu is, at age 31, one of America's most well-regarded hackers.
As a kid in Kentucky, Liu broke into video games. At 16, he met the National Security Agency in an online chatroom. The NSA was recruiting high school kids with a knack for computers, math, or foreign languages.
"A friend of a friend online introduced us," Liu says. "I had no interest in it. I thought it was some sort of weird spy agency thing."
But when they offered to pay for college, Liu signed up.
"I've still never met the person who introduced me to the NSA, which is the weird thing,” he chuckles.“But I guess it was real."
Today, Liu is the recruiter. He started his own firm of hackers for hire. Bishop Fox, based in Phoenix, Ariz., has about 40 employees.
And Liu is looking for more. This summer he went to a series of hacker conferences in Las Vegas, headhunting top-notch talent.
"You’re not going to put a resume on Monster.com and find that person," he says. "Those people are in extremely high demand. They’re very valuable. They command salaries well into the six figures."
Liu says his firm never felt the pinch of the recession because, as cyber crime grows, so does demand for services. Their fees range from $50,000-$200,000.
Liu and his team have hacked into Fortune 100 manufacturing companies. They've downloaded employee names and license plate numbers, and created ID cards to swipe themselves into data centers. But his website doesn’t list the companies who hire him.
"People have gotten up, stopped the meeting and said, quote, you’ve gone too far," Liu explains. "We’ve stolen plans for military equipment."
Demand is Growing
Liu isn’t the only one capitalizing on the demand for cyber security.
Search the term “hacker for hire” on Google and you get websites like NeighborhoodHacker.com. They have a 1-800 number, and offer to crack into email and Facebook accounts and investigate cyber predators.
But the old guard in cyber security says industry growth has clear downsides.
Richard Schaeffer is retired from the NSA, and is now a senior advisor at the Chertoff Group. When Schaeffer began in 1975, he recalls being one of 150 people hired at the NSA.
"They hire a thousand people a year now," he says. "The unemployment rate for cyber professionals is zero."
According to one industry report, there are 340,000 jobs in cybersecurity. Schaeffer says given the explosion, people like the famed NSA consultant Edward Snowden are not an anomaly.
And, according to Schaeffer, while the Pentagon has strict quality controls, the private sector -- like a 1-800 number to hire a hacker -- does not.
"We have practitioners out there being paid more, given more responsibility than their skill level deserves. And so mistakes are being made," he says.
Before hacking ever became a job description, there was an annual reunion for the underground, called DEFCON. Today, DEFCON has fewer anarchists, and more people just looking for a job.
C.J., who wouldn’t give his last name, is an elder here.
"It's become almost a professional culture now, less of the guys on skateboards and more of the guys in suits walking around," he says. "It’s kind of bad because money doesn’t count for everything."
Vinnie Liu agrees that the money has changed things, by making hacking a business. But Liu says that's a good thing. More money and higher pay values the people, like him, who are good at this.
“Some of us have mortgages and families and kids you know, and that’s the lifestyle some of us want to lead.”