The Door to a Second Chance

Having a second chance makes you want to work even harder.

Tia Mowry

The company's owner will neither confirm nor deny that he is Mr. Fusion. Many people think he is. Then again, maybe he isn't. But he sure could be. Maybe.

If he is Mr. Fusion, he's one of the most famous computer hackers in the world—part James Bond, part Mark Zuckerberg. He's part of an elite group of coders who are capable of hacking into the most sensitive government systems. He did so singlehandedly.

Even if he isn't Mr. Fusion, he is deeply, deeply involved in cyber warfare. BusinessWeek called the company he founded the “premier cyber-arms dealer.” Its expertise is in zero-day exploits, which is geek-speak for taking advantage of computer software or application vulnerabilities that are unknown even to the software's developers. The company is comprised of “white hat” hackers who develop
code to exploit security holes to conduct international clandestine surveillance operations. Sometimes they go further, conducting all out cyber attacks against bad-guy nations. Be glad they're on our side.

Mr. Fusion's company is into some wild, jaw-dropping stuff. And some very important people sit on the company's board of directors—people whose names you would instantly recognize for their spy credentials or high military rank.

But Mr. Fusion, if he is Mr. Fusion, is only able to do what he does because an open-door leader gave him a second chance.

How Would You Handle a Hacker?

In 1989, during the first Gulf War, the Pentagon became increasingly concerned that foreign enemies or terrorist groups would exploit U.S. defense systems. The concern was especially pronounced because they had caught a Washington, D.C., teenager hacking into the air force's computer systems just days before Iraq invaded Kuwait. In the dark world of the hacker community, the kid was known only by his chat-room handle: Mr. Fusion.

Consider what you would do if you caught a teenage punk hacking into some of the most sensitive computer systems in the world—systems that, in the wrong hands, could destabilize the nation's security system, or worse. Would you throw the book at the hacker, sending him to
a maximum security prison for the rest of his life? Would you exact a stronger punishment? Maybe expel him from the United States and set him up in a dank prison in the Czech Republic? Or, would you look for the opportunities this “problem child” presented?

Think for a second about the unique skills that Mr. Fusion had acquired. Wouldn't you rather have these skills working for you instead of against you? What if you could replicate his skills? Or, what if Mr. Fusion could introduce you to other Mr. Fusions out there?

The key to being an open-door leader is fi the opportunity in situations that others view as problems. That Mr. Fusion broke into a military computer system was a problem, to be sure, on an international scale. But it was also a gigantic opportunity. Skills like his were exceedingly rare, but the uses for those skills, from a national security standpoint, were growing. Hackers are more imaginative, clever, and devious than graduates of computer science programs. Their talents are too exceptional to fi through the traditional means of recruiting—hackers aren't recruited; they're caught, and then, only rarely. When you catch one, you have a decision to make: opportunity or punishment?

An Open-Door Leader Strikes a Deal

The open-door leader in this story is Special Agent Jim Christy, the chief of computer crime investigations with the air force's Offi of Security Investigations at the time of the
breach. He struck a win/win deal with Mr. Fusion and shifted the situation from a problem to an opportunity. Special Agent Christy agreed testify on Mr. Fusion's behalf at the criminal sentencing. In exchange, Mr. Fusion agreed to help the air force secure its computer systems by hacking into as many computers as he could. He would get to keep doing what he loved to do, just in a way that was constructive. In the spirit of the patriotic code crackers of World War II, Mr. Fusion was no longer a hacker, he was a cracker.

Christy set him up with a workspace and all the resources he needed to go to work. As agents watched his every keystroke, Mr. Fusion was able to breach more than 200 air force systems within three weeks. Eventually, using Mr. Fusion's methods and tools, along with skills from other members of the hacker community, a government team of crackers was able to access 88 percent of all military systems. More importantly, once the vulnerabilities were exposed, the systems could be made more secure. All this happened because Special Agent Christy gave Mr. Fusion a second chance.

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