Colorado Springs’ economic future could depend on how it fits within an emerging industry to tackle hackers.
Millions, even billions, of dollars could be in the offing for the cities that become cybersecurity central in the United States. All that money is tied to changes in how the military and industry address cybersecurity — the protection of computers and online networks from crooks, enemy armies and disgruntled individuals who can cause mayhem on the Internet.
The toughest questions to answer, though, are how to define the new industry and how big it might get. Can Colorado Springs become the national headquarters for the cybersecurity industry?
“It’s so big and moving so fast,” said Kathy Boe, CEO of Boecore, a Colorado Springs defense contractor that’s rapidly pushing into cyberspace.
Ron Sega, the Pentagon’s former chief technology officer, agreed on the scope.
“It’s a system of systems,” Sega said during a recent Colorado Springs cybersecurity conference.
The Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance says the cybersecurity sector includes more than 80 businesses, all five local military installations, five nonprofits and several college programs that train workers for the industry.
Andy Merritt, the alliance’s chief defense industry officer, estimates the industry locally employs between 1,000 and 10,000 people earning an average annual salary of $116,000. The alliance has been unable to come up with a better estimate of the industry’s workforce because the amount of an employee’s cybersecurity responsibilities varies, Merritt said.
“We aren’t cyber mountain yet,” said Al Wenstrand, the alliance’s chief economic development officer. “The cyber capital of the nation is still in the Washington, D.C., area, including parts of Maryland and Virginia. The second-largest location is in California, but it is not concentrated in one community. We compete with Huntsville, Ala.; San Antonio, Texas; Salt Lake City and the Research Triangle area in North Carolina, since all five areas are about the same size in terms of the number of employees and customers that are operating in each community.”
The military remains one of the biggest players. Major military computer hubs include Cheyenne Mountain along with Peterson and Schriever Air Force bases.
Peterson’s Air Force Space Command leads that service’s cyberwarfare efforts and controls the nation’s military satellites — which form the network where much of the military’s computer data flows. Peterson’s U.S. Northern Command has a growing cyberwarfare arm to help troops there protect the U.S. from attacks.
The Air Force Academy is building the Air Force Cyber Innovation Center on its campus, and the first cadets with computer security degrees will graduate in May. The bowels of Cheyenne Mountain contain hard drives and servers by the dozen as the military uses a facility designed to protect people from nuclear weapons to house data.
Beyond the military piece, the industry is so new — the term cybersecurity has been in use for only a few years — that the big players don’t even agree on what the industry includes.
Aerospace companies are a good example of the difficulty in quantifying the scope and size of the local cybersecurity industry, said Frank Backes, CEO of Braxton Science & Technology Group.
“Braxton does space operations as well as command-and-control operations. None can be done without a network or a cybersecurity element,” Backes said. “Where does software development end and cybersecurity start? Everybody doing command-and-control, space operations and data center support and protection are involved in cybersecurity. They have to be. That is why it is so difficult to break out cybersecurity as a separate market.”
Erik Mitisek, CEO of the Colorado Technology Association in Denver, said he believes the Springs has the nation’s highest concentration of cybersecurity professionals, as a percentage of the population. But numbers to back up that claim are difficult to assemble.
“You can easily count the number of coffee shops in a city, but in the security industry, you have a lot of people who have special security clearances and they don’t talk about the projects on which they are working. Because of the culture of the industry, it is hard to get your arms around the market in this area,” Mitisek said.
Why Colorado Springs?
The reason Colorado Springs has emerged as a cybersecurity capital is deeply rooted in the city’s past.
Thanks to the Cold War, Colorado Springs was the world’s first city to log in to what later became the World Wide Web — with a project that had its roots in the Eisenhower administration. Those first online computers were underground at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station as part of a system called “packet switching,” which allowed the long-distance transport of data to connect Washington with the mountain hub, where airmen worked to detect Russian missile launches.
It went online in 1968.