Overgrown pineapple fields in central Oahu might seem an unlikely high-tech spot.

But every day, around the clock, a huge team, including some of the nation’s top cyber experts, works there to decode messages from foreign communications systems — wireless phones, satellites, the internet — and create programs to sift through mountains of data for information signaling threats to U.S. national security.

“We have four of the five big-ticket priorities right here in the Indo-Pacific, being China, Russia, North Korea, as well as violent extremist organizations,” U.S. Navy Capt. Kurt Mole, the National Security Agency’s commanding officer in Hawaii, said during a rare interview at the NSA’s secure facility near Wahiawa. “So the Indo-Pacific region is extremely significant.”

With more than 3,500 people under Mole’s command, the NSA is also a significant part of Hawaii’s technology community — and one that some business and economic development experts say poses opportunities for a state in dire need of well-paying jobs to offset the nation’s highest cost of living.

The National Security Agency’s $358 million Capt. Joseph J. Rochefort Building houses an operations center that monitors communications from hotspots like China and North Korea. National Security Agency

About 75% of the workers are military, from all of the branches, Mole said. About a quarter are civilian workers.

Military codebreakers have long pushed advances in computer science. And the NSA is no exception. In addition to its secretive work hacking foreign codes and writing encryptions for military assets like the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the agency has a portfolio of patents it licenses to the public in hopes private companies will find applications for the new technology.

Hawaii has played an important part in all this. In fact, the Wahiawa operations building pays tribute to this history. It’s named after a World War II cryptologist, Navy Capt. Joseph Rochefort, who was stationed in Hawaii when he helped decipher enemy codes that allowed the U.S. Navy to ambush the Japanese fleet at the Battle of Midway. It was a turning point in the Pacific theater.

Hawaii has also played a less positive role in the NSA’s history.

It was here that Edward Snowden, at the time an NSA civilian contract employee, stole and later leaked a trove of classified documents showing that the agency was not only spying on foreign governments but also keeping records of millions of cell phone calls made by Americans as part of an anti-terrorism program. Snowden now lives in exile in Russia.

Asked about the past controversy, Mole said the agency takes seriously the need to comply with U.S. laws. Underscoring the agency’s “culture of compliance,” emblazoned on the wall near the building’s entrance is the text of the Fourth Amendment, protecting people from unreasonable searches and seizures.

“I think the laws have evolved over the years and the methods have then kept up with the laws,” Mole said.

Security also is paramount. Civil Beat was the third news outlet and only local media allowed at the facility recently, as part of an unusual series of visits that’s included CBS News and Yahoo! News. No photos were allowed, and Civil Beat’s reporter was told to leave his phone in the car but to bring a U.S. passport to prove citizenship.

The NSA’s Hawaii operation is one of only four so-called cryptologic centers in the U.S. Another center, in Augusta, Georgia, focuses on the Middle East and Africa. A cryptologic center in Texas monitors Latin America. And a Colorado center near Denver has a global mission. There’s also the NSA’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

But there’s a difference between those places on the mainland and Hawaii.

In other instances, locales have leveraged the NSA crypto centers into even more jobs and a bigger cyber presence. Northrup Grumman has built a 7,700-square foot cyber security center in San Antonio, for instance. And in Georgia, there’s the new, $100 million Georgia Cyber Center, plus the U.S. Army’s cyber command. Another example is Maryland, home of what some are calling a budding cyber tech city.

‘Absolutely It Can Be Done In Hawaii’

As Mike Janke sees it, the NSA’s talent outshines that of even Silicon Valley’s top companies when it comes to cyber security, in part because NSA workers routinely engage in the hands-on work of hacking enemies. A Navy SEAL-turned-entrepreneur, Janke is the co-founder of DataTribe, a business accelerator based in Maryland that works with AllegisCyber, a Silicon Valley-based venture firm, to help grow cyber startups.

In a recent interview with an economic development trade magazine, Janke described what makes NSA talent so attractive to private firms. Although Janke was talking about Maryland, what he said could have applied to Hawaii.

“Imagine you’re working at NSA, and tasked with a team of 50 with building a product to breach the Chinese and listen in to everything,” Janke told Site Selection magazine in July. “You do, and deploy it, then realize the whole world is susceptible to that. We pull them out and build a commercial version to protect against that capability.”

Part of Maryland’s appeal is a 235-acre redevelopment project on Baltimore’s waterfront called Port Covington. Cyber security startups have already committed to move in, the start of what they expect to be a hub nicknamed “Cyber Town USA.”

In an interview, Janke said he sees no reason Hawaii couldn’t do what other communities have done. But he added: “You need to have certain ingredients in the water to create a soup.”

That means a robust technology ecosystem with professional services, access to capital, educational resources and people willing to take the lead.

“Absolutely it can be done in Hawaii,” Janke said in an interview. “Oftentimes all you need is a spark.”

So does Hawaii have an eco-system strong enough to build on its advantage in cyber?

“The short answer is, ‘Yes,’” said Meli James, president of the Hawaii Venture Capital Association.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz sees the cyber security sector as an opportunity for his central Oahu district and the state in general. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

While access to capital is always a challenge, she said, the outlook is generally good. In addition, she said, organizations such as the Hawaii Business Roundtable have long seen the potential of cyber technology.

Also in the works in Mililani near the NSA’s operations is a 150-acre tech park being developed by the Hawaii Technology Development Corp.

Dubbed the Cyber Security and First Responder Tech Park, the project is the brainchild of Hawaii Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, the Ways and Means Committee chairman, who represents the area. Dela Cruz said the idea is to build on the thousands of cyber technology jobs in the area.

“It’s trying to leverage what we already have there,” he said.

The University of Hawaii and local schools are also playing a role, in some cases partnering with the NSA. The NSA provides a visiting professor for UH, Mole said. And the agency is funding research being conducted at UH’s Laboratory for Advanced Visualization and Applications.

The agency and National Science Foundation sponsor summer camps for middle and high school students called GenCyber, and last year had seven camps on five islands. Dela Cruz also helped establish a curriculum to teach cyber security and data science at Leilehua High School.

The growing demand for cyber security experts presents significant opportunities for young people, said Jodi Ito, UH’s chief information security officer who also works with an industry group called Cyber Hawaii. Annual salaries start at $53,000 for entry-level jobs and average $86,000 in Hawaii, she said.

It’s important for young people to start preparing as early as middle school to be able to get the jobs, Ito said.

“The opportunities are there,” she said. “We need to make sure people understand that they’re there and what it takes to get them.”

The NSA’s highly competitive college internship program also provides opportunities for summer jobs that lead to agency employment after graduation. The agency gets more than 1,000 applications per year, Mole said.

And Hawaii punches above its weight when it comes to landing the coveted spots. Of 16 internships in 2018, Mole said, two went to Hawaii kids: one a Kapolei High School graduate, the other an Iolani alum, Mole said.

Some local high school students already have joined the workforce of cyber spies.

The NSA now has five high school seniors working for four hours a day, five days a week, as part of a work study program, Mole said. They had to start the application process as juniors to get the security clearance needed to work for the agency. It’s a far cry from the typical part-time high school job.

“So what did you do during your senior year of high school?” Mole jokes. “It’s pretty cool.”

State’s Cyber Plan Is Not Clear

While Hawaii has pieces of a cyber technology ecosystem, it’s far from clear those pieces are all working together.

For example, a comprehensive economic development strategy and strategic plan developed by the Economic Development Alliance of Hawaii makes no mention of strengths or opportunities presented by the sector. The only mention of cyber security is in a section on threats to Hawaii’s economy, which it says include “cyber-attacks on infrastructure such as power grid or attacks that result in financial system failures.”

A key to building a thriving ecosystem is to have government, academia and industry working closely together, said Michael Shaffer, who helps run the Georgia Cyber Center as Augusta University’s executive vice president of strategic partnerships and economic development.

Already home to an NSA crypto center, Augusta got another boost in 2013 when the Army announced it would stand up its cyber command in Augusta. The challenge, he said, is that the community needed to get ready to host and train thousands of additional skilled cyber workers.

The NSA-sponsored GenCyber summer bootcamps, shown here in 2016, are introducing a new generation of students to cryptology. Honolulu Community College

The solution was the cyber center, a project owned and operated by the Georgia university system that houses government agencies like the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Cyber Crimes Center; private firms like BAE; and classrooms for community college and university courses to train workers.

The Cyber Center took steps to pull parts of the ecosystem from their silos, to nurture collaboration, Shaffer said. For instance, everything is located in the same building instead of a sprawling campus. Also, none of the offices have break rooms; instead there are common break areas, which force people from the different organizations to mingle, Shaffer said.

For organizations in dire need of skilled workers, it’s convenient to have hundreds of students being trained right there.

“If you put that together, companies like BAE and others will come to the table,” he said.

Hawaii’s cyber industry is a rare asset for a remote, high-cost state with few other competitive advantages over other locations, says Neale Rath, a senior manager with Deloitte Consulting.

After graduating with an MBA from UH’s Shidler College of Business, Rath spent years helping U.S. firms set up operations in China before returning to Hawaii recently.

Rath said Hawaii has few of the attributes firms look for when deciding where to locate operations: things like low costs to set up and easy access to talent, suppliers and customers. But Rath said Hawaii’s strength in cyber is an exception to the general rule. Still, he said, Hawaii needs a plan tailored to its strengths.

“Hawaii needs a very specialized approach to economic development,” he said.

Mike McCartney, Hawaii’s economic development director, was not available for an interview.

Even if Hawaii doesn’t capitalize on its cyber assets, the NSA will continue to have a major impact. NSA-Hawaii’s responsibilities include five nuclear nations, half the world’s population and four of the seven largest global economies, Mole notes. It also includes the South China Sea and its shipping lanes, a site of tensions between China and the U.S. and its allies.

“The maritime link, like you think of the South China Sea and all of the thoroughfare that goes through there, it’s over three trillion in trade annually,” Mole said.

In brief, it’s an important place to be, and an important job, at this time in history.

“So it’s a pretty cool job, like we like to talk about when we’re recruiting people to come work at our site,” Mole said. “It’s our mission that we perform that really sells itself. And then Hawaii sells itself as well.”

Hawaii’s Changing Economy”  series is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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