The Pentagon has invited vetted outside hackers to test the cybersecurity of some public US Defence Department websites as part of a pilot project next month.
The first programme of its kind offered by the federal government, ‘Hack the Pentagon’ is modelled on similar competitions known as bug bounties that are conducted by big US companies to discover gaps in the security of their networks.
Such programmes allow cyber experts to find and identify problems before malicious hackers can exploit them, saving money and time in the event of damaging network breaches.
"I am confident that this innovative initiative will strengthen our digital defences and ultimately enhance our national security," US Defence Secretary Ash Carter said in a statement unveiling the pilot program.
Thousands of qualified participants are expected to join the initiative, details and rules are still being worked out, but the competition could involve monetary awards, the Pentagon said.
It has been testing its own networks using internal teams for some time, but the competition would open at least some of the department's vast network of computer systems to cyber challenges from across industry and academia.
Participants must be US citizens and will have to register and submit to a background check before being turned loose on a predetermined public-facing computer system. Other more sensitive networks or key weapons programs will not be included, at least initially.
"The goal is not to comprise any aspect of our critical systems, but to still challenge our cybersecurity in a new and innovative way," said an official.
Carter has recently urged greater cooperation between private industry and the public sector on data security and has made repeated visits to tech companies in Silicon Valley since he took office a year ago.
He has warned that failing to do so would allow China, Russia and others who do not favour a free Internet to set new global standards.
Although not directly addressing the recent case regarding encryption between Apple and the FBI, Carter said the Pentagon, as the largest user of encryption in the world, views strong encryption as critical, and no one case should drive future policy considerations.
"We shouldn't let the solutions to this larger issue of how to handle data security as a society be driven by any one particular case," Carter said. "It would be unreasonable."