Geeks 'R' us

Baltimore Sun

While Texans don't apologize for having oil reserves and Floridians aren't bashful about their warm weather and sunshine, Marylanders are seldom caught boasting about one of the state's most impressive resources - a veritable army of people who know how to spy in cyber space.

The presence of the National Security Agency in Fort Meade has long been the least-talked-about jobs engine in the state's economy for obvious reasons. It's a government agency so secretive that neither its budget nor the size of its payroll is ever officially revealed. But Route 32 rush-hour traffic tie-ups, the facility's 18,000 parking spaces and recent concerns about insufficient electrical infrastructure to serve NSA's energy needs (including its world's biggest array of super-computers) suggest business is booming in the agency's post-Sept. 11 world of computer-assisted intelligence gathering.

It also makes Maryland an obvious front-runner in the process of deciding where the federal government's fledging U.S. Cyber Command and an anticipated array of supporting private contractors ought to be located. At stake are no fewer than 24,000 to 28,000 jobs. That's on par with what the much-anticipated economic development the U.S. military's Base Realignment and Closure process is bringing to the region during the next two years.

But state officials should not merely count on the presence of the NSA and some other U.S. intelligence assets in the region to make this a sure thing. If Maryland wants to be the "Silicon Valley of cyber security," as Gov. Martin O'Malley and other elected officials claim, they'll have to do more than talk about it.

The good news is that the governor and members of the Maryland congressional delegation seem to recognize this and are already identifying measures that might be helpful in this regard, including tax breaks and related financial incentives for defense contractors.

Clearly, it doesn't hurt that Maryland has some members in Congress with clout, including House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer. Senators Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin also hold posts that give them influence in matters of intelligence and homeland security, while Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger chairs the House subcommittee that oversees cybersecurity.

But it's also going to require the kind of broad review of local infrastructure, from the adequacy of roads and public transportation alternatives to the availability of suitable office space and housing, that has accompanied the BRAC relocations.

Are Maryland's colleges and universities equipped to provide appropriate work force training? Are there other steps the state should be taking to properly support the computer services sector and the 60,000 high-paid jobs that already exist in the state?

Despite the economic recession and a projected state budget deficit, Maryland ought not be reluctant to make any needed investments to ensure the state becomes the proverbial national epicenter for cyber security. Addressing the security needs of not only U.S. government computers but also those in the private sector could prove an even more lucrative trade than spying on foreign governments.

That may not require a new state motto: "Maryland. Land of Pleasant Computing." But it could ensure a quietly prosperous future.

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