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Cyber Role Model: Jack Bauer’s Geeky Sidekick-Government Information Security Blogs

June 3, 2010 – Eric Chabrow

What the United States needs to safeguard its critical IT infrastructure are more Chloe O’Brians. Chloe O’Brian, the geeky colleague of TV’s 24‘s Jack Bauer? You bet. How can a fictional character who employs computer wizardry in a war against evil help to defend the virtual world in real life? She inspires.

Media do influence decisions young people make in deciding college majors and careers. It’s something Charles McCamant observed during his long tenure as a computer science professor and department head at Texas’ Angelo State University. When I interviewed McCamant a few years back, forensics was the hot field, at least on TV, with CSI and Crossing Jordan being ratings hits, and he said the type of student who once expressed interest in computer science was being lured into fields such as forensics:

“Things on TV guide their interests.”

I mentioned my conversation with McCamant the other day to Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cybersecurity Alliance, a public-private partnership that promotes cybersecurity awareness to the American public. Kaiser concurred with McCamant’s take on societal influences, saying popular culture plays a role in how people envision their future, even if in reality careers such as forensics might not be as glamorous as portrayed on the screen. He called characters such as O’Brien as role models:

“That’s the kind of examples I talk about in terms of more role models out there for young people to see that there’s exciting opportunities in cyber world. We do have some shows like 24, for example, where cyber plays a huge role. As young people see that, they might get excited about those as possible careers.

“That’s a societal shift we all have to buy into. And, it’s something that we have to help young people, not only see it on TV as an opportunity, but also back up in the classroom.”

It’s a point not lost on Rep. Yvette Clarke, the New York Democrat who chairs the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity and Science and Technology. Speaking at a cybersecurity conference late last month, Clarke lamented the cancellation of 24, “my favorite cyber guilty pleasure.” She added:

“The show has certainly done a great deal to get our minds going about the cyber threats out there. Andrew Nagorski of the EastWest Institute has noted that, 24‘s core message is about how to fight terror, but the corollary message is about our society’s total dependence on cyberspace for everything we do. The show focuses on the cyber tools that character Chloe O’Brien uses to help Jack Bauer defend our nation against the forces of darkness out there, but it also highlights the cyber threat to critical infrastructure.”

And, the critical need for qualified cybersecurity specialists to protect our key systems and networks. Perhaps as Congress and the administration finalize the fiscal year 2011 budget, they should set aside some money for a treatment for a new TV series (or video game?) featuring an awesome cybersecurity whiz battling those bad guys in the virtual world. It could prove to be money well spent.