Keeping cybersecurity research quiet

Officials at agencies that fund cybersecurity research sparred about how public completed findings should become. Keeping secrets and bare-bones budgets dominated a discussion about federal cybersecurity research last week at a meeting of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee.

Secrecy has become an issue because officials at agencies that provide research funds for cybersecurity disagree about whether research results should be classified. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency officials who spoke at the meeting said they consider most of the agency's cybersecurity research to be classified.

Anthony Tether, DARPA's director, defended classification. He said that as Defense Department technology advances, weapons increasingly communicate via networks. In that scenario, battlefield networks are as important as the weapons themselves. "If anyone can take our network down, our effectiveness is down to zero," he said.

A different attitude prevails at the Homeland Security Department. At the meeting, DHS officials said they favor a rapid transfer of cybersecurity research results into commercial products. "My customer is the nation's infrastructure, and things that are classified don't protect my customer," said Simon Szykman, DHS' director of cybersecurity research and development.

Despite opposing views on secrecy issues, few differences exist among federal research-granting agencies regarding funds for solving immediate and fundamental cybersecurity problems. Money is scarce.

The National Science Foundation's Cyber Trust program has $30 million for cybersecurity research, but only $10 million of it is so-called new money. "The balance of that is really coming out of programs that were started within the last few years," said Carl Landwehr, the program's director.

Landwehr said the foundation supports cybersecurity research through a number of other venues, such as its information technology research program.

"It's certainly true — and I think probably appropriately so — that the agency programs are going to reflect the agency priorities," he said. But he said it is unclear if cybersecurity research is a governmentwide priority.

For homeland security, the president's fiscal 2005 budget request includes slightly more than $1 billion for research and development. But only $18 million of that is earmarked for cybersecurity research.

Edward Lazowska, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington and co-chairman of the advisory committee, was upset that no more than $18 million was requested for cybersecurity research. "You're doing a great job," Lazowska sarcastically told Szykman.

Szykman responded by saying that the request is undergoing re-evaluation as "priorities are being reconsidered." He hinted that DHS might ask for more.

One question that needs to be answered is if cybersecurity "is a never-ending challenge or one that can be reasonably managed," said Amit Yoran, director of the National Cyber Security Division at DHS. He said the government should do everything it can to minimize cybersecurity risks. But even the government should not expect absolute security, he said.

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