U.S. understanding of cyber war still immature, says former NSA director

Hayden gave presentation at Black Hat conference

LAS VEGAS — The United States has accepted cyberspace as a domain for military activity, but lacks an effective military and political doctrine for conducting and defending itself against cyber war, retired Gen. Michael Hayden said today at the Black Hat Briefings security conference.

U.S. awareness of the importance of cyberspace dates back to the 1990s, but it is not analogous to the other domains in which the military operates, land, sea, air and space, said Hayden, who has directed the CIA and the National Security Agency. This has left the nation unprepared to depend itself, he said.

“I believe we have an exposed cyber flank” that could allow a nimble enemy to thwart our defenses in a determined attack, he told reporters. Technology has outpaced our ability to make effective policy and the military is at a disadvantage in cyberspace compared with the other domains in which it operates.

“God made the other four,” he told an audience of cyber technicians and experts. “You made the last one. God did a better job.”

The "terrain" of cyberspace favors the attacker and makes it difficult to defend, Hayden said. Remedying that would require rearchitecting the Internet to create some defensible geography, but that is not likely to happen soon.

The United States has been late in coming to the table for international discussions on arms control and international policy in cyberspace, Hayden said. “We are very immature in our thinking on this, and therefore reluctant to get involved.”

That is beginning to change as the country has displayed a willingness to join some discussions. But statements by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have favored a policy of Internet freedom rather than creating of defensible architectures for the Internet.

This is not to say that the United States is not capable in cyberspace, Hayden said. He praised the apparent capabilities of China to conduct effective cyber espionage, but added, “We're actually pretty good at this. The Chinese aren't the only ones doing it.”

But the newly created U.S. Cyber Command, charged with conducting network based operations, still is struggling with rules, policies and technology for attack, Hayden said. Most of its efforts currently are directed toward defense.

There is a disconnect between those in the military who understand the technology and the decision makers charged with making policy, Hayden said. That gap must be bridged, and might ultimately require a generational shift in leadership, he said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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Reader Comments

Tue, Aug 3, 2010 Jeffrey A. Williams Frisco Texas

The Chinese are largely beating us in cyber espionage simply because our government are hiring the wrong sorts of folks for cyber command. Policy wonks can't even begin to compete with the mid level of Chinese hackers and crackers. Yet the US still has the best 'Geeks' to do the job. Secondly DHS and Cyber command haven't even gotten to IPv6, let alone IPv8 and IPv9 which the Chinese are and have been deploying. DNNSEC on our root servers isn't even properly implimented as it relies upon 'Trusted look-asides' servers operated by the private sector in which there is little of no oversight. That 'Must' cease if we are to protect our Internet infrastructure.

Mon, Aug 2, 2010 Norm Cimon

The great weakness of the Internet - the fact that it has no "geography" is also its greatest strength. It will drag us inexorably into a world that reflects that lack of boundaries if we let it, or maybe even if we don't. The global financial meltdown is proof of that. Financial flows had already been globalized but no one told the suits. They figured home mortgage foreclosures were a local thing. Not quite. The lack of boundaries to information will make the idea of the isolated nation state obsolete over time. It's no surprise that this is fiercely resisted by religions zealots, and implicitly resisted by military zealots. The two are a lot closer, philosophically than we like to think. As for the equation of cyberspace with with the natural world, that's Hayden's very own construct, and an extreme arrogance. Mr. Hayden sees a godlike design and believes we can be gods also, designing a top-down network. I see five billion years of geology, climate, and the lifeforms that have adapted to that dynamism over the eons. It's both cruel and beautiful. Ant it's given us the world we see around us. The center of that living planet is everywhere and nowhere. Just like the Internet.

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