Defense Secretary: Hackers Can Help Make Pentagon Networks More Secure

Under the Department of Defense's new "Hack the Pentagon" pilot program, unveiled Wednesday, so-called white hat hackers will have the chance to show their skills by breaking into some of the most heavily fortified networks on Earth.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said he believes that inviting hackers to find vulnerabilities in the Pentagon's networks can help make them more resistant to attacks.

"It's a way of crowdsourcing expertise and having access to good people rather than bad people," Carter said during a presentation at the RSA security conference in San Francisco.

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[Related Video: U.S. Secretary Of Defense Explains New "Hack The Pentagon" Initiative]

"You'd much rather find the vulnerabilities in your network in that way than by the other way," which includes theft of sensitive data and network breaches, said Carter.

While many vendors run "bug bounty" programs that invite researchers to submit vulnerabilities in products in exchange for cash payments, this is the first time a federal government agency has launched such an initiative.

The program is open only to U.S. citizens and participants must submit to a background check beforehand. The DoD, in a news release, described Hack the Pentagon as a "controlled, limited duration program" in which participants will be tasked with finding vulnerabilities in non-mission-critical systems.

Hackers that find vulnerabilities will receive monetary rewards as well as the recognition that comes with breaking into a heavily protected DoD system, said Carter.

Carter has been spearheading efforts to get the DoD working more closely with the private sector, an approach he said is necessary given the rapid emergence of new security threats.

"It's a serious matter for us to remain open. Government tends to be closed, Defense especially, and often there are important reasons for this," Carter said. "But by and large, the more connected we are with the innovative community, the better we can do our mission."

The program is being led by the Defense Digital Service (DDS), a group that Carter launched last November that lets private sector technology experts work with the government without actually joining it officially.

Carter described DDS as a "people bridge" between the government and the private sector that can enable a freer flow of ideas and information between the two.

Carter also discussed the Defense Innovation Advisory Board, a new Pentagon initiative that aims to glean security and technological expertise from Silicon Valley companies. Eric Schmidt, chairman of Alphabet and former Google CEO, has been appointed to lead the program.

Carter described Schmidt as a "perfect" choice to lead the initiative and said the executive has eagerly embraced the new role.

"He is deadly serious about being willing to spend his time [on the program]," said Carter. "He cares so deeply about his country and world, and knows that you can't have freedom, or innovation ... unless you have security."