Gen. Keith Alexander, who served as director of the National Security Agency and commander of the U.S. Cyber Command from 2010-14, had no trouble drawing a large crowd for his Tuesday speech at the Trinity University Policy Maker Breakfast at the DoubleTree Hotel. San Antonio is playing an increasingly larger and more important role in the secretive world of technical intelligence gathering, so a speech titled, "Is Anything Really Private?" drew a full house of 450 people on a cold, blustery morning.
A few might have attended to hear war stories from a deeply networked four-star general who served two presidents, four defense secretaries and six CIA directors, and who was in charge when the Edward Snowden leaks first broke in June 2013. Most were there, however, in support of San Antonio's growing cybersecurity community.
Gen. Alexander stated what no longer seems like science fiction: the next looming conflict will be fought by hackers with laptops and super-computers, working for national military and intelligence services nations or third-party actors seeking to disrupt and destroy adversaries and opportunistic targets with malware and viral attacks.
It's no longer just a military story. Businesses also are on high alert. Massive data thefts from Target, Home Depot and JP Morgan and major business disruptions in other nations targeted by Russia, China and North Korea are evidence that secure data is, in fact, insecure and at risk. It is no longer a question of whether your site will be attacked. It will be. The question now is how prepared are you, as a corporation, as a utility, as a local government entity, for that attack?
Some of those seen in attendance Tuesday included highly skilled Air Force veterans now working in the city's growing civilian cybersecurity sector, individuals who believe the city has an enormous opportunity if it can seize the day, galvanize its economic development forces, and launch a sustained campaign to recruit more cybersecurity military missions and some of the fast-growing civilian startups around the country to move here.
Done right, cybersecurity could become the next big thing in San Antonio, a generator of thousands of new, high-paying jobs, and the biggest wave of entrepreneurial activity and wealth creation here since the rise of Rackspace. The city's military history, welcoming environment and brain trust of retired military commanders are competitive advantages few cities can match. Alexander said as much at the end of his remarks on Tuesday, praising the city's pro-military culture and key retired military leaders who now live and work here.
The average citizen is largely oblivious to the robust intelligence community at work here now, but it is growing and becoming more mission critical. Where San Antonio once played a regional role as a quiet listening post on Latin America, it now plays a global role. Some say the NSA presence here is second now only to Fort Meade, MD.
Since 2010, Port San Antonio's Kelly Center has been home to the 24th Air Force, a key component in the U.S. Cyber Command where 1,300 skilled cybersecurity workers safeguard all Air Force IT systems. Since earlier this year, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland has become the new home of the 25th Air Force, the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency, which engages in electronic warfare and other related operations. The NSA, headquartered outside Washington, D.C. in Fort Meade, MD, operates several major facilities elsewhere in the United States, including NSA Texas in San Antonio, which includes the Texas Cryptologic Center at Lackland's Medina Annex, and a fast-growing operation at the former Sony chip plant in Northwest San Antonio that closed in 2003 and re-opened in 2010 as a tightly guarded NSA facility. The workforce size and mission remain classified. The massive array of air conditioning and cooling units on the facility's rooftop suggest the 94,000 sq. ft. building has been transformed into one giant network of super-computers.
Some industry sources say the number of workers could be as high as 7,500.
Adm. Michael Rogers, who succeeded Gen. Alexander as NSA director and at the U.S. Cyber Command, said in an October speech in San Antonio that more than 1,000 additional jobs would be created at NSA Texas as U.S. operations continued to expand. Presumably, some of those jobs will be filled by engineers, mathematicians and others graduating from universities and community colleges here. Five of the NSA's 44 National Centers of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance (IA) and Cyber Defense (CD) are in San Antonio, at UTSA, Texas A&M-San Antonio, Our Lady of the Lake, San Antonio College, and St. Phillip's College.
Gen. Alexander didn't directly address the Snowden case or the ensuing political fallout, including charges that the NSA was overstepping its bounds and systematically spying on U.S. citizens. He did defend the NSA and its practices as ethical and within the law, and said he and other intelligence leaders balance national security concerns with privacy rights.
"If you're not emailing Al Qaeda, we aren't reading your email," he said.
Alexander's generation of military leaders came of age in the 1980s and commanded troops in the Gulf War (1990-91), better known as Operation Desert Storm, when Pres. George H.W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq by a coalition of 34 nations operating under U.S. command after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait.
"It was a victory for us, a great celebration of U.S. military training and preparedness," Alexander said, "but it didn't end it. It didn't stop anything."
Instead, he said, war in the Middle East has become the norm and the number of people killed by terrorist groups is growing dramatically each year. Underlying all that instability and violence, he said, "is the greatest transformation in history, with what's going on with the Internet."
Each year now, he said, 3.5 zettabytes – "That's 3.5 with 21 zeros after it" – is created. "That's more data created in one year than was created in the last 5,000 years," Alexander said, who added that consumers now undertake 170 billion Google searches a month. "This is amazing, what's going on, and it can't be stopped."
Protecting that data, Alexander said, is both the greatest challenge and opportunity on the horizon.
"The destructive attacks coming are my greatest concern, and as a nation, we are not ready for it," Alexander said. "At the NSA we have all the great systems, but if you can't see the missile coming, you can't stop it. What are the positives here? Well, first, technology. There are things we can do. We are the country that created the Internet. We should be the country that secures the Internet. The other option – attack and disrupt – is not an option. We can't have that."
How San Antonio can grow its already vital position in the cybersecurity world is a discussion the city's political and business leadership have not yet had, at least not in the public realm. There certainly is no single online source of information profiling San Antonio's military and civilian cybersecurity sector. Rogers announcement of 1,000 new jobs seemed to take civic leaders by surprise.
Cybersecurity military missions here represent recruitment successes, but startups launched by highly trained former military veterans have not been the focus of the city's economic development efforts, although they are receiving substantial inflows of venture capital.
Given the growth of Geekdom, Graham Weston's tech incubator and co-working space, and the proliferation of startup ventures and programs that promote programming careers and teach coding, some sort of synergy between mainstream economic development efforts and the tech community's native efforts seems to be in order.
"The presence of the 24th and 25th Air Force and the NSA could attract the kind of talent to San Antonio that UT has attracted to Austin," said John Dickson, principal of Denim Group, Ltd., an Air Force veteran and strong voice in efforts to grow the city's cybersecurity industry. "It's out there, just waiting for us to make it happen. We need funding, focus and leadership, and political and business community support."
*Featured/top image: The 24th Air Force, also known as the Cyber Command, is based at Lackland Annex. The mission protects the integrity of military computer systems worldwide against cyberattacks. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force.