Chertoff: Real-time tracking key to better network defense

Oak Ridge

At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, data analysis helps detect unusual network activity, engineer says.

The big data generated by today's networks shouldn't be a scary proposition for government users or critical infrastructure providers, according to Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of Homeland Security.

Speaking at Splunk's May 16 user conference in Washington, D.C., Chertoff said the increasing threat from outside actors on defense, federal U.S. and critical infrastructure networks is higher than ever -- and growing increasingly complicated. With increasing volumes of data and an ever-expanding array of entry points on networks, the opportunity to hack into them is also at its height.

However, Chertoff -- who now heads a security consulting firm -- said that volume of data can also be used to counter cyber attacks. Within the information, he said, is a human trail that can be exploited to deter or prevent other incursions.

"Ten years ago, you had to build a really big firewall with a hard shell and a soft middle. Kind of like an 'IT Mentos,'" said Chertoff, referring to the hard-shelled candy. "That kind of defense is kind of like the Maginot line. Once someone gets around it, it's no good."

The Maginot line, built by France along its border with Germany in the 1930s, consisted of artillery, machine-gun emplacements, fortified structures and other defenses.

Chertoff said new data analysis technology that can track unusual movements and activities inside a network, as well as interpret that information in several ways, could hold an antidote of sorts for cyber threats. Real-time analysis across massive amounts of data allows quicker response, he said.

A future network that might protect nuclear and electrical power plants, financial institutions and other components of the critical infrastructure, might operate using those capabilities, he said. The effort to build more secure networks for critical infrastructure providers is being pursued under an executive order that President Obama signed in February. Chertoff predicted the networks that will evolve under the effort would have deep data analysis capabilities bolstered by real-time monitoring.

Jesse Trucks, cyber security engineer in the Cyber Operations and Integration Information Technology Services Division at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said the lab is using data analysis extensively to detect unusual activity on the facility's networks.

His facility, like many high-profile targets, has to fend off electronic attackers on a regular basis, he said.

Trucks said ORNL, which is managed by UT-Battelle under contract with the Department of Energy, uses data analytics to ferret out unusual activity on its networks and is looking to become even more adept at detecting unusual activity as attacks become more tailored to their victims.

Targeted spear-phishing attacks, said Trucks, can vary in effectiveness, but are becoming more common. They can leave an electronic trail of sorts, if cyber defenders know what to look for and how.

Sometimes, however, staving off the beginnings of an electronic assault can rely on the same old technology that detectives have relied on for a century -- the telephone. "Sometimes I just make a phone call to the sender to verify who they are," Trucks said of the suspicious emails that can arrive in employee inboxes.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group