Hacking for Defense: Changing the Face of Security Problem Solving

Photo: iStock.com/mlucas

From kamikaze drones to prototypes using facial recognition technology to help protect troops, a group of Georgetown University students enrolled in a class dubbed, “Hacking for Defense,” spent a semester developing innovative solutions to rapidly solve major national security problems.

On Monday, four teams took to the stage to present their final projects for the course dedicated to trying to find viable products the Department of Defense could use to combat real-world issues. Government agencies — called “problem sponsors” — brought several challenges to the Georgetown students, such as the inability to identify persons of interest in crowds and problems analyzing large amounts of social media data. The teams then spent the semester looking at the commercial sector, visiting key government agencies, and then developing prototypes to try to tackle the most pressing problems facing the U.S. military.

The course introduced the students to learn startup practices — essentially moving through customer discovery, hypothesis testing, and experimenting to get a solution quickly — and applied it to key national security problems.

“This is really something that can change the face of national security problem solving,” Chris Taylor, who co-teaches Georgetown’s H4D course, of which The Cipher Brief is a media sponsor, said.

Over the semester, the four teams worked through specific issues brought to them by the Joint Improvised-threat Defeat Agency (JIDO), the Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group (AWG), and U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Taking the startup approach to the famously bureaucratic Department of Defense, the students worked fast to create and test ideas to tackle the challenges the military identified.

Two of the student groups will continue to pursue the prototypes they developed after the course concludes.   One involves a kamikaze drone to identify, track, and then intercept an adversary, and the other is a way to monitor social media in real-time and push out text or email alerts to U.S. troops overseas when a relevant image is detected.

These two teams, H4Drone and Spyglass, are looking to receive investment from either the private sector or government so they can move forward with their respective projects, Taylor said.

Matt Zais, Taylor’s fellow instructor, said the course shows that quickly solving key national security issues is “possible.” With a lean startup approach, the H4D students ran through the problems presented and found either private sector solutions that already existed, or innovative new approaches to deal with emerging problems like terrorist organizations using drones.

The H4Drone team looked into everything from using corrosive chemicals to training eagles and hawks to try to counter the problem. Ultimately, they told the class on Monday, their product vision narrowed to trying to create a software package to create “smart kamikaze drones to intercept and neutralize” adversary drones, student Michael McGruddy said. The team is looking now to move ahead with their concept and is asking for $90,000 initially to create and test the software prototype.

With the threat posed by terrorist organizations like ISIS using drones on the field, “we need to come up with a solution fast, and definitely before it hits us at home,” team member Siobhan Steele said.

Lieutenant Brennon Ducote from the Joint Improvised-threat Defeat Agency said his organization had served as problem sponsors at Stanford University’s Hacking for Defense course, and got on board when the program was brought to the national capital region this year.

“Our leadership at JIDO came to us and said, ‘I need all of you who are working projects in JIDO’s J8, I need a problem set, identify your problem because we’re going to submit them to this class,’” he said. “The students read through all the problem sets submitted and they picked the one they wanted.”

Problem sponsors and mentors work with the students to help them create the innovative solutions to the issues they’ve selected. Ducote said one of the key lessons he learned from this experience was that agencies need to narrowly define their problem — ultimately, that will help both the team and the government sponsor who wants their issue solved fast. For instance, H4Drone was tasked with figuring out how to deal with the threat of attacks by unmanned aerial systems.

“The idea is don’t have a very broad problem, but have it detailed and narrowed down. For example, take counter-UAS. Counter-UAS is a huge problem. But the team approached it and they were trying to do so many different things with it that it spread them out and they couldn’t deal with the problem. So they narrowed it down and they were able to work with it better,” he said.

Spyglass, the other team looking to move forward with the product they developed during the semester-long course, was tasked by the Asymmetric Warfare Group with looking at how to analyze social media in real-time “in order to identify current and future political, social and economic trends,” student Chloe Krawczyk said — a massive request.

But then the group began to think of what social media means for troops operating abroad, allowing them to focus their approach. “We always came back to this idea of force protection,” team member Max Weintraub said, and tried to focus in how they could try to help troops on the ground through social media, even as ground forces’ own postings can potentially pose greater risks than what adversaries are doing online.

Spyglass then developed a prototype built to monitor social media postings in a specific geographic location in real time, process images with visual recognition algorithms to detect objects and people of interest, and then push alerts out to the relevant individuals on the ground. Student Jose Gabriel said they plan to move forward with the project, and they ultimately want to add video recognition in the future.

The team showcased their prototype with a test on Monday, taking a photo of AWG’s Kyle Hardy and posting it to Twitter. As Hardy stood on the stage, he received a text alert that an image had been posted of him on social media.

“This is genuinely terrifying,” Hardy said after receiving the message.

Or, as Taylor told the team after they finished presenting, “this is a thing, and you should be pursing it.” 

Monday marked the final meeting of this semester’s Hacking for Defense class. For two of the four teams, however, they’re not planning to stop once the final grades are in. After 14 weeks working out the problem laid before them, Spyglass and H4Drone are now looking ahead to the big issue that faces any startup operation — securing funding.

Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.

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