data sharing (Vector Tradition SM/

Why threat-data sharing is so hard

Sharing cyber threat information is easier said than done.  Industry concerns over exposing proprietary information, combined with agencies’ different interests make it difficult for all parties to effectively share data gathered in cyber investigations.  But the FBI, Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security have been working on ways to overcome obstacles.

DHS, the FBI and DOJ have engaged in an ongoing dialogue over the last few years about how to use data gathered in cyber intrusion investigations to best serve each agency's diverse interests, said  John Felker, director of the Department of Homeland Security's National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center.

"There's always some tension between DHS threat mitigation and law enforcement threat response and prosecution" when it comes to sharing data on cyber intrusions at companies and other cyber incidents, he said at an April 6 FedScoop cybersecurity conference.

DHS, for instance, is responsible for mitigating threats and sharing information about how to stop threats to other companies and entities. At the same time, the FBI is more concerned about using threat information and data to track down perpetrators, while the Justice Department is concerned about having the best data to prosecute hackers.

All of those interests don't necessarily hang together easily, according to Josh Goldfoot, principal deputy chief at the DOJ's criminal division, computer crime and intellectual property section.

"Hacking cases are difficult," he said, because there are points of conflict for the various agencies interested in fighting the intruder, finding the intruder and prosecuting them.

For investigators, cases in which companies who invite federal agencies to help them with network intrusions present opportunities to examine hackers' activities and goals in real time as they progress through networks. They also generate material that can be used by prosecutors in the criminal case against them. That can create difficulties for DHS, the agency charged with kicking hackers out.

"We want to know what's going on, so we can pass that threat information along" to others to help them mitigate it, Felker said.

"The FBI needs context for threat sharing," said Trent Teyema, section chief at the bureau’s cyber readiness group. "We're hunters," he said.

With such differing sensibilities, the FBI, DOJ and DHS have learned to share threat information in subtle ways. The information gathered in some big cyber intrusion cases, said the officials, is made available through side channels.

"We do stick [the information] out there in a bunch of trees," Felker said, dispersing it with everyday data, making it appear as mundane as patch information or other ordinary data, he said.

Felker, Teyema and Goldfoot said commercial industry can use that kind of collaboration as an example of how to cooperate on their own threat data sharing. Some industries, such as energy companies, are sharing formally and informally. Teyema and Goldfoot cited regular monthly meetings of oil companies in FBI facilities in Houston as an example of that cooperation.

In those meetings, oil company executives compare and share data and examples in face-to-face contact while making sure proprietary data is not in the picture.

"There is a desperate need for information sharing," Goldfoot said. "The bad guys are doing their own information sharing" making computer crime tools available on the dark web for under $1,000.

This article was first posted to FCW, a sister site to GCN.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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