Cyber risks place new demands on public/private partnership

On a sweltering July day at a hotel in Washington, D.C., a room full of cybersecurity experts from government and industry watched a video simulation of an America in panic amid widespread cell phone and power outages that expanded from the Northeast across the country and eventually around the world.

Earlier that morning, the Wall Street Journal had revealed the National Security Agency's plan to protect the networks of private companies that own critical infrastructure from the sort of cyberattacks that could create that kind of havoc.

The blogosphere responded swiftly and predictably to the privacy implications of NSA’s program — the creepily named Perfect Citizen — because of the access the government’s most secretive agency would receive to private networks. The program’s technology would monitor the networks of publicly owned utilities that serve as the nation’s critical infrastructure, scanning them for any sign of a cyberattack that could cripple the country.

The meeting at the hotel was the AFCEA Cybersecurity Symposium, a forum for representatives of industry, government and the military to hash out the best strategies for protecting U.S. networks from cyberattack. It was an all-day event, but in the end, participants homed in on the collaboration between the public sector and private industry, an approach to cybersecurity that is both thorny and necessary.

“It’s important for the public to understand that there is a lot at risk,” said Army Brig. Gen. John Davis, director of current operations at U.S. Cyber Command (Cybercom) and deputy commander of the Joint Task Force-Global Network Operations. “We need to be realistic about the fact that it’s not just military networks that are at risk, it’s all networks. And we realize that military networks are built on the networks of industry.”


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Translation: The U.S. military alone can’t protect cyberspace, and it’s not just because of a lack of manpower. The intricate, interlaced public and private networks require an approach that is a hybrid of traditional defense and its successor, the public/private partnership.

It’s a solution that is as complex as the networks it’s supposed to protect.

Complications of collaboration

At the cybersecurity symposium, industry representatives were wary of the Perfect Citizen revelation, and their concerns bore similarities and subtle differences from those of the general public.

In the face of a program that puts government eyes on the networks of privately owned companies, could a market backlash against a potential privacy invasion cost them? The public balked when news surfaced in 2006 that AT&T had given unfettered access to NSA to monitor its customers’ phone calls and Internet activity. The ensuing public relations disaster cemented fears of a new era in government intrusion into the lives of everyday citizens and launched a new wave of conspiracy theories to match.

The news that Perfect Citizen could train a watchful eye on the networks of Google raised fears of another AT&T-style scandal. Such a move could mean that the Internet searches and online activities of millions stand to be exposed.

Furthermore, could deals like NSA’s reportedly $100 million contract with Raytheon to develop Perfect Citizen’s monitoring technology put rival companies’ secrets at risk from snooping?

But the government and military officials at the AFCEA symposium took a defensive stance. They said that to protect U.S. cyberspace, officials need to develop a new plan for the public/private partnership — a plan that includes sharing information, such as security breaches of private networks, in order to learn from each other and identify best practices.

“The private sector is the lowest common denominator in cybersecurity,” said Ellen McCarthy, president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. To get the public partnership right, strong information sharing and open communications need to be the standards, she said, adding that protecting the interests of private citizens is also among the responsibilities of the public/private partnership.

Where do we go from here?

The defense industry has always been closely aligned with government, but as the Defense Department ramps up its presence in its newest domain — cyberspace — many hope that Cybercom can usher in a new era of public/private collaboration.

“We need to think about it differently than in the past,” Davis said. “We’re all connected in this business. And we need a regime where we can respond to incidents.”

With the recent orders from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to shave $100 billion in defense spending in the next five years — with a special focus on contracting and acquisition — developing such a plan won’t be easy.

“With shared cyber risks and vulnerabilities, what would shared engagement and investment plans look like?” asked Riley Repko, senior adviser for cyber operations and transformation at the Air Force's Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Air, Space and Information Operations, Plans and Requirements. “We need to think big, start small, scale fast, think nontraditional and develop a framework with the right mix of thought leaders.”

Shared engagement could mean divvying up the benefits, which in government-speak means incentives. Panelists at the symposium suggested that incentives for sharing information would encourage the sort of partnerships needed for cybersecurity.

“Because nothing compels information sharing, the private sector needs to see the benefit,” said Anne Neuberger, special assistant to NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander for the Enduring Security Framework Forum. Alexander is also commander of Cybercom.

Others believe Cybercom's creation could be the catalyst needed.

“As Cybercom continues to grow and mature, policy, doctrine and requirements will continue to become better defined,” said Tom Conway, director of federal business development at McAfee.

Nonetheless, industry and government leaders remain uncertain about where the public/private partnership stands, which makes it difficult to determine the best way forward. It’s a precarious situation that was clearly exemplified at the AFCEA symposium earlier this month.

“How many of you think [the public/private partnership] is doing a good job?” retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Harry Raduege, co-chairman of the Commission on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency, asked the roomful of stakeholders.

No hands went up.

“How many think [the partnership] is not so good?” Raduege asked.

About half the attendees slowly raised their hands.

“How many of you have no clue how [the partnership] is going?” he asked.

The other half’s hands shot up.

 

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