THE BLOG

Edward Snowden: The Elephant in the Room

06/25/2013 11:19 am ET | Updated Aug 25, 2013

There are many questions about the information stolen by Edward Snowden and why he went abroad instead of facing American justice. A separate and growing question is how he obtained access to the information in the first place. A 29-year-old high school dropout who purposefully obtained a job at an American NSA contractor with the intent to steal classified documents he then -- premeditatedly -- took to China and points beyond. How could someone like Snowden get into Booz Allen and have a security clearance?

It turns out that young, minimally educated men have long been thought -- by some -- to have mysterious information technology powers (read hackers) to administer networks. The head of the NSA even went to a hacker convention in 2012 to recruit for the NSA. General Alexander, have you fallen for a Hollywood stereotype? Those kids who can act like young Mr. Spock in the Star Trek reboot to control many computers at once - like magic? Do you really think the Edward Snowdens of the world the only ones who can manage your networks?

The proverbial "elephant in the room" is that there's an entire educated, experienced and patriotic class of American systems specialists -- men and women -- languishing without jobs because they've the bad luck to be of a "certain age." I speak of the people who invented the processes for managing those networks -- not to mention the special effects that led to the image of Mr. Spock managing his computers.

These are unemployed Baby Boomers -- long-term unemployed -- who are systems experts, systems analysts, project managers, hiring managers, network architects, technicians and programmers. If their skills turn out to be rusty through being "aged out" of jobs, they're easily ramped up to speed because, like riding a bicycle, these Americans understand how systems, policies and procedures work.

Snowden, whether he turns out to be hellbent on transparency or an out-and-out mole, is from a demographic of young Libertarian hackers who don't see America in the same way as their older counterparts. To the Snowdens of the world, transparency trumps national boundaries.

Whether they're right or wrong is not the question. If a country or company is doing something criminal, then a whistle blower who comes forward might rightfully be called a hero if they handle it in a way that benefits the greater good (which, for me, at least, is NOT running to China with it).

If a country or a company is handling confidential or classified information, it's incumbent on them to hire the right person to handle that information. Instead, these companies have stars in their eyes about the stereotype of the young maverick hacker wizards who's going to save their technological butts by doing what others cannot -- administering complex systems.

There are real systems wizards collecting bottles for recycling money throughout America because they're over forty or fifty years old and their unemployment has run out.

This is not the question of an advanced degree or even a college degree. One stereotype does hold true. Many systems geniuses did not graduate college. Bill Gates is an example. He's a Baby Boomer. (He did finish high school though). The question is about experience, loyalty and innate skills. The Baby Boomers who've been let go from corporations throughout America -- in many cases replaced by H1B Visa workers or twenty-something hackers -- have skills, drive and, above all, a strong sense of patriotism.

These are the children of the WWII generation. They might whistle blow if they find crimes. There's zero evidence they'd go into a company or a government entity as part of a culture with the express purpose of stealing information they can then take to China and Russia.

Instead, they are the overlooked Americans who watch a bunch of Libertarian kids or H1B Visa workers with no sense of our history take their highly sensitive jobs and leave them to starve.

Hire the hacker for less sensitive positions. Hire the H1B Visa worker for jobs where no Americans are actually available. Don't assume Baby Boomers are unqualified or that trained Americans aren't available. Don't obfuscate their availability so that you can get lower cost workers through Congressional amendments or add poison pills to bills.

With the Snowden case, the hiring of these mysterious hackers has gone from an economic disaster for their older counterparts to a national security problem. Hiring managers who've bought into the mythology about young hackers, whether they're in government contractors like Booz Allen, the NSA or any other company, can mitigate this risk by giving aged-out Americans a second chance to be first in line for jobs they're perfectly capable of performing -- regardless of how much (and it's less than people assume) they need to be brought up to speed.