Cyberattacks spur new warning system

The Defense Department has created a new alert system to rate the level of threats to its information systems that mirrors the well-known Defense Conditions (DEFCONs) ratings that mark the overall military status in response to traditional foreign threats.

The new Information Conditions, or "INFOCONs," are raised and lowered based upon cyberthreats to DOD or to the U.S. Strategic Command (Stratcom) at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. Stratcom is responsible for deterring any military attack on the United States and for deploying troops or launching nuclear weapons should deterrence fail, a Stratcom spokesman said. As INFOCONs are raised, officials take additional measures to protect information systems.

While DEFCONs have been popularized in movies such as "WarGames" and "The Hunt for Red October," this is the first time electronic threats have been included in the assessment of the nation's overall safety from enemy attacks. The INFOCONs are a response to a recent Defense Science Board report that concluded that reliance on computer systems to operate key infrastructures has "created a tunnel of vulnerability previously unrealized in the history of conflict" and could have a "catastrophic effect on the ability of [DOD] to fulfill its mission."

Stratcom uses five levels to indicate the threat to information technology systems: Normal indicates the lowest IT Defense posture, then the INFOCONs rise to levels labeled Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta, the highest posture. As the threat to systems increases, officials employ more stringent policies and procedures, including, for example, disconnecting from the Internet and monitoring all systems in real time.

"We monitor all known electronic threats to our automated information systems [AISs]," the spokesman said. "With the electronic threat growing every day, the cornerstone of our 'defense-in-depth' IS security program is educating our front-line cyberwarriors. We rely on a myriad of protection methods to protect our systems, including threat notifications by intelligence agencies, information provided by other military computer emergency response teams and monitoring the activities on our firewall. As INFOCON levels increase, we institute physical and electronic protection methodologies to our AISs based upon the threat."

Officials at Stratcom have developed detailed guidelines on raising and lowering INFOCONs based on the threat. Structured, systematic attacks to penetrate systems will result in a higher INFOCON level than when individual, isolated attempts are made, according to Stratcom.

Stratcom officials plan to work with the Justice Department's recently announced initiative to develop a National Information Protection Center so that a systematic notification procedure can be followed when INFOCONs increase. Stratcom officials hope that by the time the center becomes operational, which is scheduled for next month, the federal government will adopt national-level INFOCONs for all federal organizations.

Barry Collin, senior research fellow at the Stanford, Calif.-based Institute for Security and Intelligence, said that while the INFOCON program was conceived at Stratcom, many other DOD components are excited about the program and are moving to identify their own responses to INFOCON levels.

"Traditional intrusion detection and response has not been a unified process of communications," Collin said. "Until now there has been very little action when a threat has occurred. Traditionally, there was no cross-organizational communications platform. It's moving toward that uniformed cyberthreat posture that the DOD needs."

Collin, who emphasized that Stratcom's most sensitive systems tied to nuclear missile launch are never exposed to the outside world, said this move is in response to the growing number of systematic attacks on DOD computer systems. This is also the first institutionalized program that holds DOD systems administrators accountable for system intrusions by requiring them to put into place procedures to respond to changing INFOCONs, he said.

"These are the guys with the finger on the button; their systems are of particular concern," Collin said. "If you lock everything up on [the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, DOD's classified network], nothing will get done. What they're looking for is a way to react intelligently to threats. By doing this, then everyone knows 'lock down' and what 'lock down' means to their individual organizations."

Winn Schwartau, an information warfare author and consultant, recently suggested a similar approach in a report he wrote that was requested by DOD. Schwartau suggested an approach that calls for large organ-izations and enterprises in the commercial sector, including infrastructure operators, to develop with the federal government a means to measure cyberthreats and then develop a response policy to those threats.

Schwartau said he applauds Stratcom's movement toward INFOCONs, but he said that the private sector also needs to be involved in rating the overall health of the nation's information operations because the military is frequently dependent upon private-sector infrastructures.

"The Pentagon, in defiant response to their own internal debates, is now floating the term information operations to explain what they do, but it still is far from [being as] inclusive as many of us would like," according to Schwartau's report, which is scheduled to be published by DOD in June. "The contention is that the Pentagon is in the physical war business.... That contention, too, is a matter of healthy debate when we ask, 'Who protects the private sector from international assaults that do not involve bombs, airplanes and submarines?' "

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