Brennan: Government 'cannot just hope' private sector will protect digital domain

CIA Director John Brennan speaking at CSIS Sept. 9 2016 

CIA Director John Brennan expects a transformation in how the government and industry cooperate to protect the digital environment.

CIA Director John Brennan said he believes that the digital space provides a challenge to governance models that is fundamentally new in human history and that the U.S. government needs to do more to meet the challenge.

"We have known for decades, centuries, if not millennia what the role of governance is in the physical space -- on our streets, seaports, airports, whatever," Brennan said in a Sept. 14 appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. But the digital world, "which does not respect sovereign boundaries and which the government does not own or control and which is increasingly limitless," is another matter.

In some ways, Brennan's stark views about the digital transformation aren't surprising. He has reorganized his agency and created a Directorate of Digital Innovation to improve the use of technology in intelligence collection and nurture a new generation of tech-savvy leaders.

Brennan offered support to FBI Director James Comey for raising the issue of how commercial encryption often stymies law enforcement agencies' access to the communications of criminal and terrorist suspects, even under lawful court order.

"This needs to be the premier national discussion and debate going forward," Brennan said. "What is the role of government in this digital domain, in this cyber environment that is owned and operated 90 percent by the private sector?"

He added that he foresees an "unprecedented partnership between the government and the private sector because there's not a government solution to this."

Furthermore, "if our way of life, if our country is going to be dependent on the security, the reliability, the resilience of this environment, the government cannot just hope that all the various private-sector actors are going to fulfill their responsibilities," Brennan said.

He cited industrial control systems and critical infrastructure as elements that are particularly prone to attack and manipulation. "The government needs to be able to protect [them]," he said.

Brennan takes the view that the debate is being distorted and exaggerated on both sides, and he wants to reach a consensus on the role of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the rest of government in policing and protecting the digital space.

"Before we face a devastating event that really is going to...vividly demonstrate to everyone just how dependent we are on that [digital] environment, we need to have a real, true national debate on this," Brennan said.

He backs a national commission that would take a comprehensive look at the issue from all sides and make recommendations on how to proceed.

"There needs to be an understanding that if we're going to protect privacy and civil liberties, which is what this country is founded upon, we need to understand and have a general agreement and consensus on what the role of government is in protecting that environment and what are going to be the boundaries, the limits, the laws that are going to undergird that," Brennan said.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


  • Defense
    Soldiers from the Old Guard test the second iteration of the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) capability set during an exercise at Fort Belvoir, VA in Fall 2019. Photo by Courtney Bacon

    IVAS and the future of defense acquisition

    The Army’s Integrated Visual Augmentation System has been in the works for years, but the potentially multibillion deal could mark a paradigm shift in how the Defense Department buys and leverages technology.

  • Cybersecurity
    Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas  (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lora Ratliff)

    Mayorkas announces cyber 'sprints' on ransomware, ICS, workforce

    The Homeland Security secretary announced a series of focused efforts to address issues around ransomware, critical infrastructure and the agency's workforce that will all be launched in the coming weeks.

Stay Connected