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White Hats Wanted

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Cyber-attacks targeting US Government institutions are on the rise. In fact, over the past 10 years, attacks have increased by 1,300%. As America's largest, most diverse military branch, the US Army Cyber Command directs and conducts integrated information and cyberspace operations to ensure freedom of action in and through cyberspace and the information environment.  

In order to be a last best defense against the rising wave of cyber warfare, the Army needs to recruit American women and men who possess rare and vital hacking skills AND a desire to use those skills for good. Those people call themselves "White Hats" BUT there aren't many of them in the US. 

Finding elite hackers to join the US Army is no easy feat. The US lacks cyber-defense experts. In fact, during a cyber-warfare game conducted by NATO last year, the US ranked 25th—out of 25 countries. To add insult to injury, the select few with superior hacking skills perceive the Army as an antiquated, overly regulated organisation that couldn’t possibly attract the best and brightest.  


In order to attract the best and brightest of these hard to find hackers the US Army decided to have them come to it. If it could find a way to challenge these hackers to crack an incredibly difficult code it would be able to appeal to their hacking nature and get them excited about the prospect of using those skills as a White Hat, while simultaneously screening for the best hackers the United States has to offer. 

UM created a TV commercial that operated at two levels: 1. Inform a mass audience that the US Army is fighting a new threat, away from the traditional battlefield, and simultaneously 2. Disguise a call to action that spoke to hackers yet was hiding in plain sight. 

The commercial opens in a nondescript basement with an unmanned laptop rapidly typing lines of code. A digitised voice boasts of its ability to shut down power grids and paralyse its infrastructure. Just as the voice is about to assert its invincibility, it is stopped mid-sentence. It cut to the interior of an Army Cyber Command centre and see those responsible for foiling the attack.  

However, upon second look, the code was not “prop type” but a real message to hackers directing them to a site featuring a decryption puzzle, created by real Army Cyber Command personnel. 

The gauntlet to hackers was thrown down. It was time for them to pick it up and run with it.  


The agency inserted subtle messaging it imbedded and disguised within “prop type” in order to successfully lure hackers using methods germane to them.  

Those who recognised the message would eventually find their way to a website where they were challenged to hack. Hackers were required to use a cypher key to decrypt the code. The encryption key was changed frequently, to prevent hackers from using social media to help others successfully cheat the code. Only a select few could solve the puzzle. These elite hackers received decrypted text inviting them to contact the US Army’s Cyber Command division. 


Within a few months of the campaign’s launch, more than 700,000 hackers attempted to decrypt the puzzle. Each failed attempt spurred further participation and generated buzz within the hacking community that the US Army is serious about attracting elite talent.  

Thanks to the puzzle’s complexity, 99% of participants were “weeded out” for lacking the necessary skills to join the Army’s Cyber Command. Of those who did prove good enough, 30% contacted Army Cyber Command directly—a conversion rate 15 times the Army’s average and the highest in Army marketing history. 

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US Army
Government/Public Sector
United States
October 2016 - July 2017
Media Channel:
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