New cybersecurity lab opens in Columbia

Defense of nation's systems from attacks a top priority

October 02, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Although thousands of people driving on Interstate 95 daily pass the big "SAIC" letters on a Columbia office building, few get inside to see a slice of one of the newest, fastest-growing fields: developing new techniques for blocking electronic attacks on U.S. defense and commercial interests.

The ceremonial opening Monday of a Cyber Innovation Center at Science Applications International Corp. in Columbia's Gateway Business Park offered a brief glimpse.

The firm employs about 500 people in the year-old building just west of the highway, according to Senior Vice President Larry Cox, but the national Cyber Command to be built at Fort Meade will occupy an estimated 5.8 million-square-foot complex, according to officials, making it a much larger presence and bringing far more new jobs to the area than the federal defense job transfers connected to the base relocation program will.

Company CEO Walt Havenstein said his firm is positioned to work on both government and private sector projects in a business that should grow fast in the next decade.

He spoke to several hundred of his workers and some electioneering politicians crowded into the lobby of the building for the event. SAIC is based in McLean, Va., and has 17,500 employees in the Maryland, D.C. and Northern Virginia area. The firm employs 45,000 people for defense contracting and private sector work. That brought in $10.9 billion in revenue in the year ending Jan. 31.

"The issue around the threat to our nation from cybersecurity threats is extraordinary. Our nation and its economy are based on these [computer] networks," Havenstein said, adding that his firm is one of many that will eventually transform the I-95 corridor between Baltimore and Washington into the "gateway to the private sector" for cybersecurity projects. It is "the nexus of the solution to that threat," he said.

That's why his firm bought a 100-person company in Sunnydale, Calif., called Cloud Shield, a name SAIC now uses for its new Cyber Innovation Center lab, which is intended as a place for research and innovation, conferences and training.

"Most cyber warriors will be very young," he said, noting that this past summer the firm had 42 college interns and is forging connections to area colleges such as the Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and others. The point, officials believe, is that for every defense, a new offense will be created. This will continue for decades as individuals and governments try to pierce or disable electronic defenses and the United States tries to preserve the integrity of its systems.

"This is not a war" in any conventional sense that has a start and finish, Cox said. "This is a game to be played for the rest of our lives." He said the firm will rotate employees through the lab from throughout the company. The lab, officials said, will provide a collaboration space where workers from around the country can come together and fuse their ideas into new electronic products and software.

"Cyber security is here and it is here for the long haul," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat. "This will create jobs for many, many days to come. It's one of Maryland's greatest economic job creation opportunities," he said.

U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski also attended, along with Howard County Executive Ken Ulman. Mikulski told the group that hackers "are trying to get into your checkbook. We need to maintain a qualitative edge," which means that government can't work alone, requiring help from contractors such as SAIC. In addition, as programs develop, new private sector jobs will result from new technological products.

In the new lab, Mikulski was shown a brief simulated example of how software programs can first detect a cyber attack, and then redirect the infected programs to servers controlled by defenders, neutralizing the threat. "It's like network judo," one official told her.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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