'Destructive' cyber attacks ahead, NSA's Alexander warns

The Defense Department needs real-time access to threat information from the private sector if it is to protect the nation’s cyberspace, National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander said July 9.

“We need information sharing, in time and at network speed,” said Alexander, who also heads the U.S. Cyber Command. Because the United States is the largest user of online technology, “we are the most vulnerable and we need to do something about it.”

But the scope of the information that the NSA wants is misunderstood by the public, he said. “We’re not talking about giving our personal e-mails to the government.” The agency wants only attack signatures and IP addresses. “It doesn’t require reading the e-mail,” he said.

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Alexander, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, made a pitch for cybersecurity legislation that would enable easier sharing of threat information between government and the private sector, and among agencies, while also trying to quiet fears that sharing with the NSA would open the door to domestic military spying.

“We can protect civil liberties and privacy, and cybersecurity,” he said.

A variety bills addressing different areas of cybersecurity have been introduced in both houses of Congress, but have been stalled as lawmakers debate the proper role of government -- and particularly the military -- in protecting a predominantly privately owned cyberspace. It is generally felt that better cooperation, including information sharing, is needed between the private sector and government. But the details of what information should be shared, with whom and for what purposes remain in dispute.

Alexander, while not addressing any particular bill, said the two most important features of any legislation is information sharing and establishing standards of security for the nation’s critical infrastructure.

The threat of cyberattacks is escalating, both because online communications are becoming more tightly interwoven in our economy and national security and because the attacks themselves are becoming more sophisticated and dangerous.

“What I’m concerned about is the transition from disruptive to destructive attacks,” he said. “And I think that’s coming. We have to be ready for that.”

One subject conspicuously absent from in the talk was the Stuxnet worm, generally believed to be the first example of a cyberweapon designed to do physical damage, whose origin has been attributed to a U.S. cyberweapons program.

Establishing deterrence in cyberspace is more complex than with nuclear warfare because of the greater number of elements in the equation, Alexander said. In addition to nation states, there also are criminals, hackers, hacktivists and terrorist engaged on online activities. To date, the most serious activity has been espionage and the theft of intellectual property by both nations and criminals. Alexander called this theft “the greatest transfer of wealth in history.”

At this point, terrorist groups including al Qaeda do not pose a viable cyber threat, he said. But, “I’m concerned that while I don’t see it today, they could quickly get to that.”

Alexander’s plea for understanding about the need for data sharing comes at a time when NSA has raised eyebrows with the construction of the Utah Data Center, a secure facility reportedly for the interception and storage of electronic communications. He did not discuss details of the data center, but said it does not pose a threat to privacy.

“We don’t hold data on U.S. citizens,” he said. He said his agency does not have the resources to deal with the estimated 30 trillion e-mails sent every year and that it is focused on gathering foreign intelligence. “That’s what NSA does.”

Alexander said cybersecurity legislation is “absolutely vital” to enable NSA to protect domestic critical infrastructure, because information must be shared across organizational lines between NSA, the Homeland Security Department and the FBI, as well as with private companies. “It takes a team.” He said. “No one agency or department can do this by itself.”

Alexander acknowledged that it is politically difficult to move legislation during the presidential and congressional campaign seasons, but said both Republicans and Democrats see cybersecurity as a critical issue, with fundamental disagreements on how to address it.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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Reader Comments

Mon, Jul 30, 2012

There is absolutely no need for them to see into our networks. They need to be in the adversary's networks determining what they're doing. Oh and this is a NORTHCOM responsibility. There's no need to even have a CYBER Command. Nice try, KBA, but we're not buying it.

Mon, Jul 16, 2012

Interesting argument about DHS versus NSA for protecting domestic information systems. There can be a lively debate about whether DHS or NSA (DOD) is the right one to take the lead on this. One could argue that DHS has had the lead on this for years, but that the most significant issues facing domestic U.S. systems have not been addressed. Whoever is chosen to be the "lead" on this, the fact is that both Departments will need to continue to work together to address these issues. Hopefully turf battles and competition for money won't get in the way of accomplishing what needs to be done.

Wed, Jul 11, 2012 N. VA

I'm all for greater sharing of threat information. But the military aka NSA certainly isn't the organization to spearhead protection of private networks. No doubt they build great technology, but operationalizing defensive information security has not been their forte. The argument I hear is to give an agency that has repeatedly failed at delivering defensive security operations and has an abysmal record regarding protecting the privacy of citizens more money and authority. Sharing has always meant give us more and never a two way sharing agreement. And when they fail to deliver, they will do like always and blame it on the lack of funding. It's a homeland issue, DHS should have the authority and funding and NSA should play a support role.

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