DHS releases new details on Einstein 3 intrusion prevention pilot

Pilot would test an intrusion prevention system for .gov that uses technology developed by NSA

The Homeland Security Department plans to partner with a commerical Internet Service Provider and another government agency to pilot technology developed by the National Security Agency to automate the process of detecting cyber intrusions into civilian agencies’ systems, making it possible to thwart the attacks before damage is done.

The new technologies and automated processes of Einstein 3 are improvements over Einstein 1 and 2 technology, DHS officials said. Einstein 3's predecessors focused on intrusion detection, allowing analysts to scan records of connections to agencies’ systems and use signatures to scan network traffic for cyber threats. Einstein 3 would add the ability to prevent those intrusions.

Einstein 3 also would improve information sharing by DHS’ U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), allowing the department to automate the process for sending alerts about detected network intrusions.

The department’s privacy office detailed the plans to pilot technologies and processes that could be used for Einstein 3 in a privacy impact assessment (PIA) for the exercise on March 18. The E-Government Act of 2002 required agencies to complete privacy impact assessments for substantially revised or new information technology system.

The document provides the greatest detail thus far on DHS’ plans to test Einstein 3; however, parts of the program remain classified. DHS is in charge of protecting the government’s civilian agencies from computer threats and the Einstein program is used to protect the .gov domain used by civilian agencies.

The planned test, as described in the assessment, aims to demonstrate the ability of an ISP to select and redirect Internet traffic from a participating government agency using the new technology. The exercise would also be used demonstrate the ability for U.S. CERT to apply intrusion detection and prevention to that traffic and to generate automated alerts about selected cyber threats.

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The exercise involves a much narrower range of network traffic than Einstein 2 does and information collected during the exercise will just be from the participating agency, according to the privacy document. Furthermore, only the portion of redirected traffic that’s associated with cyber threats will be available to US-CERT analysts, DHS said.

The department said it conducted the PIA because the Einstein 3 exercise would analyze Internet traffic that may contain personally identifiable information (PII). However, US-CERT analysts must justify maintaining any PII for analysis, the document said.

The assessment also provides detail on the specific roles that DHS, the participating government agency, and the ISP will play in the demonstration. DHS said it chose to deploy the technology at the ISP, designated as a Trusted Internet Connection Access Provider, because of considerations such as cost, scalability, the government’s network coverage.

In addition, to making use of technology developed by the NSA, Einstein 3 would also give DHS the ability to send alerts that don’t contain the content of communications to NSA so the department "maybe supported by NSA exercising its lawfully authorized missions," according to the assessment. The department would also be able to adapt threat signatures determined by NSA in the course of that agency's foreign intelligence and defense work.

Einstein 3 is a component of the government’s Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative. The Obama administration recently released some details of plans for Einstein 3 in an unclassified summary of the CNCI. Meanwhile, the Einstein 3 has been controversial with privacy advocates, in particular, over questions about the NSA’s planned involvement in a program.

According to the document, the planned pilot exercise would be broken down into four phases:

  • Phase 1 to show the ISP’s ability to accurately identify, redirect, and re-insert the participating agency’s traffic
  • Phase 2 to show how the technology can be installed securely in the ISP’s facility
  • Phase 3 during which US-CERT will begin applying the technology on the participating agency’s traffic against known or suspected threats and
  • Phase 4 will depend on the success of the earlier phases and funding.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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