With the 2012 Summer Olympic Games just finished in London recently, all eyes were on the world’s greatest athletes. Fans from all over the world are anxiously waited for the competition, eager for the chance to see their favorites perform dazzling feats of athleticism, set work records and usher in the latest generation of sports legends.

Few realized, though, that there was a whole different class of legends performing dazzling feats behind the scenes. These athletes may not be setting records in track and field or flying through the air in amazing gymnastic treats, but their accomplishments were no less impressive—and inarguably vital to the smooth running of the games.

These unsung heroes are the hundreds of computer experts and hackers who worked behind the scenes to ensure the Olympic Games remain safe from cyber-attacks. As one of the most high profile events in the entire world, the Olympics are a prime target for terrorist groups, hacktivists and everyday criminals who want to wreak havoc on the carefully organized and highly secure event using computers.

Hackers Wanted?

Computer systems are vital to the smooth functioning and accuracy of the Olympic Games. Timing systems, scoring systems, event timetables, even event ticketing systems and transportation operate on computer systems that are vulnerable to attack. Imagine the chaos that would have ensued should the ticketing system have gone down—or the timing system been adjusted to give particular athletes an advantage, or not work at all.

For the last several years, the Olympic organizers have sought ways to fend off potential cyber-attacks, using actual cyber-attacks. That’s right—the Olympic computer systems have been hacked dozens of times in over 200,000 hours of security testing, all completely on purpose.

In order to identify vulnerabilities in the system and find ways to close potential security gaps, the technology companies that handle computer systems and security for the Olympic Games engaged the services of experienced hackers to attack the system. These hackers are among the best in the world, often capable of breaking into some of the most advanced systems available. Essentially the security experts believe that if the ethical hackers, also known as white hats, can break into the system, so can the black hat, or more malicious hackers, can also and will do so in order to wreak havoc.

Why Use Hackers?

The world of IT security is constantly evolving and changing, with new threats popping up every day. While developers are experienced in identifying potential threats to security, it’s often impossible for them to notice every potentially vulnerable spot. By engaging the services of hackers, the security team can see what methods hackers use to break into the system, where they gain access to the system and what they are able to do when they get in. Using the skills of these individuals identifies previously missed opportunities to improve security, and allows the security team to shore up defenses in vulnerable areas.

Applications to Other Industries

While the Olympics is one high profile example of using ethical hacking to improve IT security, the concept is beginning to see applications in other industries. Organizations are beginning to see the value in performing simulated cyber-attacks to identify vulnerabilities and test new security systems.

As businesses begin to recognize the importance of a strategic IT security program that uses methods such as hacking, there is a new demand for leaders who understand how to implement these programs and implement the results. Many organizational leadership degree programs are offering tracks that include IT leadership, addressing issues that are particular to the leadership and management of IT and security departments. In addition, those earning IT security degrees are also beginning to seek certification in ethical hacking, in order to provide their services to security trams, either on a freelance or in-house employee basis.

Every few years- next to be seen in 2014- the Olympics present a new set of security challenges. Keeping the event running smoothly, along with protecting the thousands of athletes and spectators, is of the utmost importance, and new methods of security are developing constantly. However, as long as computer systems are vulnerable to attack, ethical hackers will be engaged to prevent catastrophic cyber-attacks.

About the Author: Joe Myers is a freelance IT consultant and tech journalist who recently received his organizational leadership degree. He lives in Malibu, CA and enjoys long walks on the beach with his beagle, while studying for his IT security degrees.