U.S. government cybersecurity is an insecure mess, and fixing it is going to take considerable attention and resources. Trying to make sense of this, President Barack Obama ordered a 60-day review of government cybersecurity initiatives. Meanwhile, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, Science and Technology is holding hearings on the same topic.
One of the areas of contention is who should be in charge. The FBI, DHS and DoD—specifically, the NSA—all have interests here. Earlier this month, Rod Beckström resigned from his position as director of the DHS’s National Cybersecurity Center, warning of a power grab by the NSA.
Putting national cybersecurity in the hands of the NSA is an incredibly bad idea. An entire parade of people, ranging from former FBI director Louis Freeh to Microsoft’s Trusted Computing Group Vice President and former Justice Department computer crime chief Scott Charney, have told Congress the same thing at this month’s hearings.
Cybersecurity isn’t a military problem, or even a government problem—it’s a universal problem. All networks, military, government, civilian and commercial, use the same computers, the same networking hardware, the same Internet protocols and the same software packages. We all are the targets of the same attack tools and tactics. It’s not even that government targets are somehow more important; these days, most of our nation’s critical IT infrastructure is in commercial hands. Government-sponsored Chinese hackers go after both military and civilian targets.
Some have said that the NSA should be in charge because it has specialized knowledge. Earlier this month, Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair made this point, saying “There are some wizards out there at Ft. Meade who can do stuff.” That’s probably not true, but if it is, we’d better get them out of Ft. Meade as soon as possible—they’re doing the nation little good where they are now.
Not that government cybersecurity failings require any specialized wizardry to fix. GAO reports indicate that government problems include insufficient access controls, a lack of encryption where necessary, poor network management, failure to install patches, inadequate audit procedures, and incomplete or ineffective information security programs. These aren’t super-secret NSA-level security issues; these are the same managerial problems that every corporate CIO wrestles with.
We’ve all got the same problems, so solutions must be shared. If the government has any clever ideas to solve its cybersecurity problems, certainly a lot of us could benefit from those solutions. If it has an idea for improving network security, it should tell everyone. The best thing the government can do for cybersecurity world-wide is to use its buying power to improve the security of the IT products everyone uses. If it imposes significant security requirements on its IT vendors, those vendors will modify their products to meet those requirements. And those same products, now with improved security, will become available to all of us as the new standard.
Moreover, the NSA’s dual mission of providing security and conducting surveillance means it has an inherent conflict of interest in cybersecurity. Inside the NSA, this is called the “equities issue.” During the Cold War, it was easy; the NSA used its expertise to protect American military information and communications, and eavesdropped on Soviet information and communications. But what happens when both the good guys the NSA wants to protect, and the bad guys the NSA wants to eavesdrop on, use the same systems? They all use Microsoft Windows, Oracle databases, Internet email, and Skype. When the NSA finds a vulnerability in one of those systems, does it alert the manufacturer and fix it—making both the good guys and the bad guys more secure? Or does it keep quiet about the vulnerability and not tell anyone—making it easier to spy on the bad guys but also keeping the good guys insecure? Programs like the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program have created additional vulnerabilities in our domestic telephone networks.
Testifying before Congress earlier this month, former DHS National Cyber Security division head Amit Yoran said “the intelligence community has always and will always prioritize its own collection efforts over the defensive and protection mission of our government’s and nation’s digital systems.”
Maybe the NSA could convince us that it’s putting cybersecurity first, but its culture of secrecy will mean that any decisions it makes will be suspect. Under current law, extended by the Bush administration’s extravagant invocation of the “state secrets” privilege when charged with statutory and constitutional violations, the NSA’s activities are not subject to any meaningful public oversight. And the NSA’s tradition of military secrecy makes it harder for it to coordinate with other government IT departments, most of which don’t have clearances, let alone coordinate with local law enforcement or the commercial sector.
We need transparent and accountable government processes, using commercial security products. We need government cybersecurity programs that improve security for everyone. The NSA certainly has an advisory and a coordination role in national cybersecurity, and perhaps a more supervisory role in DoD cybersecurity—both offensive and defensive—but it should not be in charge.
A version of this essay appeared on The Wall Street Journal website.
Posted on April 2, 2009 at 6:09 AM •