Feds prepare but say little about cyberdefense plans

Federal and industry officials participated in a simulated exercise last month to prepare for a possible large-scale attack on government and commercial networks.

Government and industry participants in Silent Horizon practiced how to recognize when a large-scale network attack is about to happen or is under way. The unclassified event took place the week of May 23 in Charlottesville, Va.

"Government and industry often run simulations to prepare for cyberattacks — it would be irresponsible not to," said a U.S. intelligence agency official who requested anonymity.

The intelligence official would not say how many people or which agencies and companies were involved. The exercise, however, most likely involved employees from the CIA’s Information Operations Center, a facility that former CIA Director George Tenet once testified had been created to deal with cyberattacks and improve communications among government, industry and academic officials.

Communication about potential threats to the infrastructure is critical, said Brent Greene, vice president of strategic initiatives in Lucent Technologies’ Government Solutions business unit. The private sector runs and manages between 80 percent and 90 percent of the nation’s backbone communications network, he said.

Besides testing communications capabilities, simulations such as Silent Horizon let participants test, create prototypes and evaluate the effects of cyberattacks on voice, video and data networks. “They explore the vulnerability of the backbone,” Greene said.

The results are used to build more effective security into the backbone network, identify new policies that may be needed and learn which technologies industry needs to develop further, he said.

Lucent Technologies did not participate in the exercise, Greene said, but it designed much of the hardware and software used by companies that own and operate domestic and overseas networks.

A computer security expert not involved in the exercise said Silent Horizon most likely involved monitoring hackers as they tested government and commercial networks' defenses.

"When attackers do a large-scale attack, they come in on multiple vectors and often run tests to make sure it will work," said Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, a computer and network security research and training organization in Bethesda, Md.

For example, if hackers want to bring down a telecommunications network, they test their attack on a couple of its switches, Paller said. If they can bring down part of the system, they assume they can bring down all of it, he said. Such small-scale tests are indicators or warnings to officials that someone might be planning a larger attack.

"If you don't call attention to the little ones, the big attack comes as a complete surprise," he said.

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