By CNN's Rene Marsh
The federal government says a potential cyberattack is the most serious economic and national security threat the United States faces, but it faces a shortage of skilled experts who could head off that threat, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warns.
There's a huge job market for cyberwarriors who can protect the nation's computer networks from an attack, but many of those jobs are going unfilled, Napolitano said.
"There is a lack of expertise and there are a lot of people clamoring for people who know the internet well," said Napolitano, who called electronic security her No. 1 concern. "Millions of people use the internet every day, and we want that - that's a good thing. But there is this dark side, and that's what we need to be protecting against."
Homeland Security says it responded to more than 106,000 cyberattacks in 2011. Napolitano says without more experts in repelling those incursions, the U.S. economy could be the biggest casualty.
A successful attack could mean another country stealing American intellectual property, like technology, research or trade secrets. Experts say over time, all the advantages the United States has because of its innovation would dwindle, leaving the country unable to compete with other economies that have stolen American intellectual property. Industry insiders estimate the economic loss could be in the billions of dollars.
Homeland Security says thousands of such experts already work in the federal government, but there's a desperate need for more.
"We need analysts. We need people who are engineers. We need people who are experienced in intelligence as it relates to the cyber-universe," Napolitano said.
George Washington University is on a short list of institutions answering the need. The university will launch a masters' program in cybersecurity in the fall, and George Washington University Professor Lance Hoffman says the school often gets calls from companies and government agencies who want to hire students with computer expertise and training.
Hoffman told CNN that students graduating from George Washington with a cybersecurity degree have the know-how to build secure systems that are not easily penetrated. Rather than reacting to cyberattacks, he said, graduates will know how to predict vulnerabilities and build a system to prevent attacks. Logic and a solid math, technology and science background are pluses.
Kevin Mandia's security firm responds to corporate breaches, determining how the system was compromised and how to fix it. But with only 220 people on staff, Mandiant's response is mostly reactive. The security firm says it can't match the current demand from corporations who have been hacked.
"There's definitely a shortage of cybersecurity experts, and there's a lot of reasons for that," Mandia said. "It takes a long time to learn how to be a cybersecurity expert."
Mandia said the six- to eight-year grooming process in a challenging field may be keeping people away. But industry insiders say stopping attacks before they happen is impossible without more qualified people in place, and both private and federal experts say the consequences of not filling these positions could be great.
To bridge the gap, Napolitano has been traveling to universities to promote the opportunities available within her agency. Homeland Security is also helping universities shape their courses to match the needs of the department.