Cybersecurity

Documents shed light on secretive 'Perfect Citizen' project

power tower

America's critical infrastructure, including its electrical power distribution system, is at risk of cyber attack. (Stock image)

In documents recently released to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the National Security Agency unveiled some – but far from all – details about its controversial cybersecurity program designed to shield critical infrastructure and other crucial U.S. networks.

The program, dubbed Perfect Citizen, was first reported in July 2010 by the Wall Street Journal, and immediately attracted the attention of privacy advocates concerned about the NSA potentially spying on or tracking activities of U.S. citizens. Of the 190 pages obtained by EPIC through a Freedom of Information Act request, about half are redacted to protect classified information.

Within the documents is the original contract for Perfect Citizen’s development, which was awarded to defense contractor Raytheon with a value of up to $91 million. Included in the contract are work orders providing for 28 workers – software engineers, program managers, laboratory personnel and “penetration testers” – to detect and fix vulnerabilities in utilities such as the electric grid. It also calls for the development of defense practices and capabilities.

“Previously the agency had said it was just a research program,” Ginger McCall, director of EPIC's Open Government Program, told ABC News. “But we see in these documents that they do intend to conduct testing, actual research, actual vulnerability testing and develop software tools that could be operational.”

If Perfect Citizen’s operations include the deployment of sensors on U.S. networks to detect malicious cyber activity, it could be in conflict with the NSA’s authority as the Defense Department’s agency in charge of foreign intelligence. Domestic networks are the Homeland Security Department's domain, and monitoring U.S. citizens’ activities online would require proper authorizations.

The new details on Perfect Citizen come amid a lull in the ongoing and acrimonious debate over the best ways to secure critical infrastructure and prevent potentially damaging cyber attacks. Cybersecurity legislation addressing cyber defenses in the arena failed last fall, and while lawmakers say they will be taking up the issue in the new Congress, it is also expected that President Barack Obama will issue an executive order handing down security mandates. That executive order is believed to be imminent – possibly coming before Obama’s inauguration, according to FCW sources speaking on background.

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.

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Reader comments

Thu, Jan 10, 2013

I wish I could be as trusting as you....

Wed, Jan 9, 2013

"If Perfect Citizen’s operations include the deployment of sensors on U.S. networks to detect malicious cyber activity, it could be in conflict with the NSA’s authority as the Defense Department’s agency in charge of foreign intelligence." That's a big "if" and a significant leap of logic to a baseless implication. Just because CyberCom is involved in R&D of tools or sensors doesn't mean that NSA will deploy and operate those sensors against civilian systems. The involvement of penetration testers is necessary and should be obvious to anyone with a cyber security background; software tool development is only effective if it includes testers who operate from the prespective of the threat. Perfect Citizen has no idea whether those testers will operate in test labs or on production networks. Tools can be shared across the federal government to agencies with the titles and authorities to perform monitoring. This article is little more than a leap of logic by the uninformed who are looking for fire where there is none.

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