Defence agencies in developed countries are spending millions on programmer brainstorming sessions – hackathons – resulting in solid results and promising ideas
The second year of the pandemic marked a record year in terms of the growth of cyber threats. According to aresearch by CheckPoint, the global number of cyber attacks increased by 50% in 2021, with civilian and military government websites being the second most popular target, with an average of 1,136 attacks per week, or 1.5 times as many as banking websites (703 per week) and energy companies (736 per week). One of the largest attacks was carried out against the U.S.Department of Justice: hackers were able to access 3% of the email accounts of its reporting agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Other countries face similar threats. In December 2021, the computer network of Belgium’s Ministry of Defencewas partially down due to an attack launched using the so-called “Log4j vulnerability”, which hackers use to disrupt servers. And in July, a DDoS attack targeted the Russian Defence Ministry’s website.
Military agencies are increasingly using digital hackathons to mitigate such threats. Under normal circumstances, hackathons are forums in which development teams compete to create software, mobile applications or interfaces in a short period of time. Thanks to the participation of civilian professionals lacking even minimal military experience, hackathonsmake it possible to attract non-standard ideas that can be “packaged” into new IT solutions with further fine-tuning.
A good example is the Hack the Army hackathon, which is regularly held by the US Department of Defense to find vulnerabilities in its own official resources. The first Hack the Army hackathon was held in 2016: 371 “white hats” participated, including 17 active military personnel, who found a total of 118 problem areas – for a combinedreward of $100,000. In the second hackathon, held in 2019, the number of vulnerabilities found rose to 146, and in 2021, when the third hackathon was held, to 238, of which 102 were deemed critical.
A similar hackathon in late 2021 was held in India by theMilitary College of Rashtriya Raksha University, which specialises in training security professionals. Two of the three hackathon categories focused on eliminating cyber threats: specifically, coding software to protect against cyber attacks, and regaining control over computer systems that had already been compromised by hackers. The winners in these categories won cash prizes of up to1.5m rupees (just over $20,000).
However, cyber threats are by no means the only reason for using the digital hackathon format for military purposes. Rather, it is a collateral objective. The main purpose of hackathons is to serve as a factory for the latest military technology: similar events are also organised to improve the technical equipment of the military. For example, in September 2021, the British Ministry of Defence invited programmers to a hackathonorganized specifically to develop a digital platform that would determine the shortest and safest routes for military convoys to pass through. The winner was the U.S. company Maxar, which manufactures communications satellites and equipment for orbital imagery. Maxar’s technical solution enabled detailed visualization of unfamiliar terrain, which, given the data on the mobility of equipment and its vulnerability to ambushes, can seriously improve the combat readiness of troops. As a result, Maxar’s hackathon development has been selected for further development.
In 2019, the UK Ministry of Defence tasked 13 teams from both industry and academia with finding new ways to use artificial intelligence in defence. To keep the IT teams focused on finding innovative solutions to defencechallenges during the two-day hackathon, two judging panels were involved: one made up of senior ministry officials and the other made up of cross-industry innovation leaders. As reported by the British media, the event resulted in 13 unique AI-based products.
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Defense organised a hackathon to develop a mobile app that would providenutritional data for rations. The goal was to help military personnel make the most rational dietary choices without immediate assistance from nutritionists. The mission statement read: “With the newly released combat ration nutritional data sets, hackers will look for innovative ways that Soldiers can interact with this data in a mobile environment. This will allow Soldiers to better manage and understand their combat nutrition, ultimately allowing them to out-perform any adversary.” The hackathon was also meant to help the Ministry of Defence optimise the cost of 36 million army rations, which at the time amounted to $600 million. The three winning teams who came up with the best solutions each received $6,000.
The TIDE hackathon, held annually by the NATO, is in the same line: in 2019, it focused on developing code to allow snipers to receive timely alerts of nearby ordnance during mine clearance operations; and in 2020, on minimising the risk of data leakage from video conferencing, which has become particularly popular during the pandemic.
Here’s what Morgan Plummer, managing director of the National Security Innovation Network, says about the effectiveness of hackathons: “The Department of Defense is a large and dynamic enterprise, but it represents only a fraction of the U.S. population. We want to hear the ideas and harness the creativity of students and industry professionals to help the Department of Defense [find] AI-enabled solutions for predictive maintenance that will make us safer and more efficient.”
Overall, it is safe to say that the U.S. is spending huge amounts of money on the digital front across the board.At a hearing of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Navy Vice Admiral Norton reported that one military hackathon alone uncovered thousands of chinks in cyber armour, while the Pentagon was spending billions of dollars on cybersecurity. That is, by spending hundreds of thousands on a hackathon, the U.S. military saved tens, perhaps hundreds of millions. Today, all branches of the U.S. military are spending millions of dollars on hackathons, which still turns out to be more profitable than outsourcing. Funding for hackathons by service branches is not listed separately, but their frequency and the number of participants suggest that the U.S. military spends at least $11.6 million a year on these brainstorming sessions, as do other NATO countries.
Russia and China also bring together civilian experts, but there is even less information about this in the public domain. Earlier this year, the Russian Ministry of Defence held a hackathon at ERA technopolis: 14 teams competed in three cases that in one way or another involved machine processing and data analysis.
Most likely, the scale of Russian hackathons is not yet comparable with their Western counterparts, but media suggest that the Russian military is paying more and more attention to them, and with quite specific objectives: the topic of one of the past hackathons was target recognition and structuring for weapons systems, and the recent large-scale competition in Anapa yielded solid results.
“In robotics, we have interesting developments in the use of drones,” said Colonel Evgeny Nazarov, head of the research department. The Russians’ traditional reserved demeanor suggests that they have significantly increased the advantages of their combat systems as a result of the hackathons.
The demand for civilian and, consequently, military hackathons is clearly evident in the dynamics of global sales of software for their organization: according to a forecast by BlueWeave Consulting, between now and 2026 they will increase by an average of 8% a year and will reach $292.2 million in monetary terms (against $187.1 million in 2020). Apparently, organisinghackathons will also become a significant budget item for the military departments of major powers.