Cyber Command: We Don’t Wanna Defend the Internet (We Just Might Have To)
2010-07-09 0:00

By Noah Shachtman |

Members of the military’s new Cyber Command insist that they’ve got no interest in taking over civilian Internet security – or even in becoming the Pentagon’s primary information protectors. But the push to intertwine military and civilian network defenses is gaining momentum, nevertheless. At a gathering this week of top cybersecurity officials and defense contractors, the Pentagon’s number two floated the idea that the Defense Department might start a protective program for civilian networks, based on a deeply controversial effort to keep hackers out of the government’s pipes.

U.S. Cyber Command (“CYBERCOM“) officially became operational this week, after years of preparation. But observers inside the military and out still aren’t quite sure what the command is supposed to do: protect the Pentagon’s networks, strike enemies with logic bombs, seal up civilian vulnerabilities, or some combination of all three.

To one senior CYBERCOM official, the answer is pretty simple: nothing new. Smaller military units within U.S. Strategic Command coordinated and set policies for the armed forces’ far-flung teams of network operators and defenders. Those coordinators and policy-makers have now been subsumed into CYBERCOM. They’ll still do the same thing as before, only more efficiently. “Doesn’t expand any authorities. It doesn’t have any new missions,” the official told Danger Room. “It really doesn’t add any significant funding… And really, it’s not a significant increase in personnel; we just reorganized the personnel have we had in a smarter and more effective way.”

That may soon change, however. A 356-page classified plan outlining CYBERCOM’s rise is being put into action. A team of about 560 troops, headquartered at Ft. Meade, Maryland, will eventually grow to 1093. Each of the four armed services are assembling their own cyber units out of former communications specialists, system administrators, network defenders, and military hackers. Those units – Marine Forces Cyber Command, the 24th Air Force, the 10th Fleet, and Army Forces Cyber Command – are then supposed to supply some of their troops to CYBERCOM as needed. It’s similar to how the Army and Marines provide Central Command with combat forces to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Inside the military, there’s a sense that CYBERCOM may take on a momentum of its own, its missions growing more and more diverse.

Most importantly, perhaps, procedures are now being worked out for CYBERCOM to help the Department of Homeland Security defend government and civilian networks, much like the military contributed to disaster recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

In those incidents, it took days, even weeks for the military to fully swing into action. In the event of an information attack, those timelines could be drastically collapsed. “There’s probably gonna be a very temporal element to it. It’s gonna need to be pretty quick,” the CYBERCOM official said.

Exactly what kind of event might trigger CYBERCOM’s involvement isn’t clear. “From our perspective the threshold is really easy: it’s when we get a request from DHS,” the official noted. “What’s their threshold? I couldn’t tell you what their threshold is.”

The Pentagon might not even wait for an information disaster to move in. The National Security Agency is developing threat-monitoring systems for government networks dubbed Einstein 2 and Einstein 3. Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn believes those programs ought to extended to cover key private networks, as well.

“We are already using our technical capabilities… to protect government networks,” Lynn announced at the Strategic Command Cyber Symposium here. “We need to think imaginatively about how this technology can also help secure a space on the Internet for critical government and commercial applications.”

Einstein 2 is supposed to inspect data for threat signatures as it enters federal networks. Einstein 3 goes even further — alerting DHS and the NSA before the attacks hit. “You’re starting to anticipate intrusions, anticipate threat signatures, and try and preventing things from getting to the firewalls rather than just stopping at the firewalls,” Lynn told Danger Room after his Cyber Symposium speech. (Full disclosure: I ran a panel at the event, and the military paid my travel costs.)

Given the NSA’s history of domestic surveillance, civil liberties groups fear that the Einstein programs could become a new way to snoop on average Americans’ communications. Lynn said not to worry: “Individual users who do not want to enroll could stay in the ‘wild, wild west’ of the unprotected internet.”

“I think it’s gonna have to be voluntary,” he added. “People could opt into protection – or choose to stay out. Individual users may well choose to stay out. But in terms of protecting the nation’s security, it’s not the individual users [that matter most]. I mean, they have to worry about their individual [data], their credit rating, and all that. But it’s the vulnerability of certain critical infrastructure – power, transportation, finance. This starts to give you an angle at doing that.”

Privacy rights organizations and military insiders also wonder whether CYBERCOM is just another way to extend the NSA’s reach. After all, both organizations are headquartered at Ft. Meade. And both are headed by Gen. Keith Alexander.

The CYBERCOM official swears that won’t happen. “It’s not NSA taking over military cyber,” he said. “And it’s not military cyber taking over NSA.”

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