Cyber experts invited to 'Hack the Pentagon'

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The Defense Department is inviting "vetted hackers" to test its cybersecurity in a new pilot program called "Hack the Pentagon."

"This innovative project is a demonstration of [Secretary of Defense Ashton] Carter's continued commitment to drive the Pentagon to identify new ways to improve the department's security measures as our interests in cyberspace evolve," the Pentagon said in a statement Wednesday announcing the initiative.

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It's the first "cyber bug bounty program in the history of the federal government" and is modeled after similar competitions held by the nation's biggest companies, the Pentagon said. 

Hackers are required to register and submit to a background check to participate in the program. Hackers must be U.S. citizens, according to Reuters.

Qualified participants will then try to identify vulnerabilities in Pentagon applications, websites and networks. They could be eligible for monetary awards and other recognition. The program launches in April. 

"I am always challenging our people to think outside the five-sided box that is the Pentagon," said Carter in a statement.  

"Inviting responsible hackers to test our cybersecurity certainly meets that test. I am confident this innovative initiative will strengthen our digital defenses and ultimately enhance our national security." 

"Critical, mission-facing systems" will not be part of the program, the Pentagon said. 

The initiative is being led by the Defense Digital Service (DDS), a small team of engineers and data experts launched by Carter in November, as part of the White House's U.S. Digital Service. 

"Bringing in the best talent, technology and processes from the private sector not only helps us deliver comprehensive, more secure solutions to the DOD, but it also helps us better protect our country," said DDS Director and technology entrepreneur Chris Lynch.

The Pentagon announced the program as Carter and other top officials are on a swing through Silicon Valley to meet with tech executives.

Carter said the trip is part of the military’s efforts to “rebuild bridges between the Department of Defense and some of our nation's most innovative industries.”

The two sides have been at odds since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed through a series of leaks the extent of the government’s secret surveillance efforts.

But the Defense Department has its sights set on Silicon Valley as a major talent pool for developing its cyber team. The Pentagon is in the midst of building out the half-staffed U.S. Cyber Command. The cyber division is expected to reach 6,200 personnel across 133 teams by 2018.

This story was updated at 10:48 a.m.