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Government Seeks Cybersecurity, Superiority in Mostly Lawless Domain

The typical IT department must concern itself with all sorts of threats: Spyware and cookies that hop on users’ computers after a seemingly harmless click on a banner ad; malware that unwitting e-mailers save to their hard drives in pursuit of a fun e-card from a friend; and malicious codes that save themselves to your hard drive after inserting a flash drive. All of these things could cripple the enterprise’s network infrastructure, making it quite difficult to continue with business as usual.

But what about when that business is the U.S. government? Not only is its network more critical, but it’s also sustains a great many more threats: Last year, Defense Department systems alone sustained about six million assaults a day. And government networks run everything from the nation’s power grids to software on fighter jets, meaning a successful attack could have far-reaching, devastating consequences.

“Our government needs to be aware of what’s happening out there, how are these attacks occurring, whether our entire financial critical infrastructure [could be] at risk,” said Ed Jaehne, chief strategy officer at cybersecurity firm KEYW.

That pro-active approach is part of the government, Defense Department and intelligence services’ goal to bolster not just their cybersecurity but also their cyber superiority, the ability not only to defend critical assets but also to extract key information – about foreign companies, intelligence services or defense operations, for example – from cyberspace. Cyber superiority also focuses on using such information-gathering tactics to create a “decision advantage” for the country’s leadership. “We need to be ready to shift into an attack mode if that is authorized and required. Importantly, need to understand how attacks against us can be conducted,” Jaehne said.

In a recently released paper, Rice University’s IT policy fellow Chris Bronk argues that the United States employs a double standard when it seeks to use cyber tools to affect other nations – swiping intellectual property or messing with critical infrastructure, for example – but raises a cry when other entities reach into U.S. networks

“I hear a lot in the United States about how bad it is for other countries to try to steal intellectual property and other stuff from us and from other countries. I think it’s a form of hypocrisy for the U.S. to say that, because that’s what we’re doing,” Bronk said in an interview.

At the same time, he said, that doesn’t mean that the federal government shouldn’t simply ignore the Internet’s ability to bolster the nation’s security.

“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use information technology to spy on Iran’s nuclear program or to keep tabs on Hezbollah; both of those seem like a great idea,” Bronk said. “But we can’t then go and point our finger at other world powers and say, ‘You’re spying on our companies. That’s bad.’”

But what exactly the government is saying about its cybersecurity policy is a bit unclear. It has no publicized policy on securing cyberspace, and both Bronk and Jaehne said it has quite a bit of work to do to be able to secure all its assets.

“The state of policy is substantially behind the threat,” Jaehne said. “It is something that has a lot of attention, but there’s a lot more attention and a lot more in the way of meetings than there is in the way of action on the policy level.”

Bronk said that he would like to see the United States develop a cybersecurity policy that seeks to “play by the rules” – but that a major issue internationally is the dearth of agreements governing the domain. Though much of the world follows the European Union’s Convention on Cybercrime, those regulations address only criminal behavior – identity theft, stealing, money laundering – and fail to prescribe anything for those that carry out cyber attacks.

“There’s all this other nastiness going on,” Bronk said. “Why isn’t there an international agreement on banning denial of service attacks?”

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