By BOBBY MCMAHON
ANNAPOLIS (Dec. 17, 2009) - Imagine a team of robbers, ski masks on their faces. Maybe guns. Probably holding comically large cloth bags with dollar signs printed on them.
Now imagine they don't need the masks, the guns and the big ol' bags. Imagine they can steal information and money from anywhere in the world in the blink of an eye.
Beyond just money, imagine they can shut down huge power grids or nearly bring an entire country's government and banking system to a halt.
As the Internet and those who use it create an increasingly interconnected world, the ability to protect information and access online—cybersecurity—has shifted from science fiction to a glaring necessity for governments, businesses and everyday people.
In Maryland, cybersecurity is a big part of why the information technology sector of the economy is growing in this recession. Fueled by increasing demand for this emerging technology, businesses and public officials foresee continued growth and predict the state can become the "Silicon Valley of Cybersecurity."
Like much of the tech sector, officials and business leaders point to an abundance of highly-skilled technology workers and the presence of the federal government—especially the National Security Agency—as a main reason why the cybersecurity industry has developed in Maryland.
Curt Aubley, an executive at Lockheed Martin, says that cybersecurity and other technology industries like telecommunications have grown significantly around D.C. and in Howard and Anne Arundel counties in the past 10 years.
"As the federal government has been growing and (other technology industries) have been growing," Aubley said, "there's been a natural convergence that's happened in our market in this area of the country."
At Lockheed Martin, Aubley directs the NexGen Cyber Innovation and Technology Center in Gaithersburg, a 25,000 square-foot facility that addresses a broad spectrum of cybersecurity challenges and has more computer monitors and high-tech- equipment than the set of the television show "24." To be successful, he said it is vital to be right down the road from federal partners in D.C.
"We can work virtual," Aubley said, "but there's really still nothing like sitting down face to face with people from (National Institute of Standards and Technology) or NASA, or any of the agencies, with a good old fashioned white board and brainstorming together."
Looking ahead, many see the sector growing in the state. One big engine driving the growth will be the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process, which will move 4,300 personnel from the Defense Information Systems Agency to Fort Meade by Sept 15, 2011.
Steve Kozak, the executive director of the Greater Baltimore Tech Council, said this influx of new talent will create even more economic growth in the sector. As some of these workers leave federal agencies, many will start their own cybersecurity companies, either creating jobs in their companies or elsewhere by investing or buying technologies from smaller companies.
"It's very good for the region," Kozak said.
Aubley agrees. In a nod to good old fashioned American ingenuity, he foresees that this huge mass of brain power will absorb the cybersecurity ideas and lessons they learned in government and take them into fields like health care and energy.
"I think what will naturally happen is you'll start seeing a springboard of smaller companies start popping up and helping people outside the federal government around the world," Aubley said.
Experts also say the federal government has a massive need to hire workers knowledgeable in cybersecurity. According to a recent study by the Partnership for Public Service, a non-partisan group, there is a broad effort underway to educate, train and retain thousands of new cybersecurity workers, many of whom will be located in Maryland.
Sally Jagger, the co-author of the study, said that contractors will play a key role in this ramp-up of cybersecurity by the federal government. She stressed that understanding of how vital cybersecurity is has increased at all levels of the federal government—agencies, the White House and Congress—in the past few years.
"They're taking this very, very seriously," Jagger said.
Indeed, the overwhelming consensus among policymakers and those within the industry is that these threats to the nation's digital infrastructure are clear and present. They reference how Estonia, a country in Eastern Europe, was nearly paralyzed by an onslaught of cyber attacks in 2007, or how data from 45.7 million customers was stolen from TJ Maxx over a two-year period. They even warn that future wars will be fought not with bombs and guns but with bits and bytes.
And when these attacks come, Kozak predicts Maryland—particularly around Fort Meade—will be the epicenter in developing how we fight back.
"This region ... will be the cybersecurity capital of the nation, possibly the world," Kozak said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.