Cybersecurity

NSA's cyber wing looks to safeguard COVID research and expand outreach

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The National Security Agency's cybersecurity directorate is focusing its resources on protecting medical research related to the COVID-19 pandemic and assisting critical infrastructure that can help speed up America's economic recovery, according to the agency's Deputy Director George Barnes.

Speaking on a webcast hosted by the Intelligence National Security Alliance, Barnes provided an update on the agency's cyber-focused directorate formed late last year. The rise of the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a whole host of additional challenges, increasing the collective digital threat surface as governments and businesses moved to mostly online operations and putting public health organizations and pharmaceutical companies working on a vaccine and other aspects of the response firmly in the crosshairs of nation-state hackers.

Barnes said the fallout from the pandemic has pushed the directorate to ask "how do we protect critical activities that are vital to us getting back in a healthy state?" and enable Americans to get back to work and keep the economy moving. When it comes to protecting private and public medical research, the agency's bread and butter -- signals intelligence – can provide medical research organizations with insight into what information foreign governments are after as well as the tools and methods they're using to get it.

"It wasn't [more than] a few days into March where phone calls were coming in to NSA asking us for our insights and our support to that community, and so we have doubled down and really accelerated and intensified efforts to reach out," he said.

While one of the directorate's core missions is protecting national security systems such as nuclear command and control infrastructure, the organization has realized that many of the vulnerabilities they're called upon to defend against are the result of poorly designed parts and components. A lack of coordination between the industries that create technologies and the governments who use them to protect cyberspace "we are not well positioned as a nation" to defend against digital espionage and supply chain compromises.

That has caused the directorate to canvass the Department of Defense as well as the defense industrial base and non-defense businesses to create a more collaborative, bidirectional relationship.

"We are tied between government and industry. Industry drives government, industry creates the capabilities, the solutions that we press into service operationally," said Barnes. "Our security can't just start once we take something on and receive it and deploy it. It has to start from the design, and we know all too well that designs are ripe for plucking."

The directorate was initially designed to focus on protecting national security systems and the defense industrial base from hacking groups, foreign intelligence services and other threats. It was also set up to boost information sharing efforts and foster better cooperation between NSA, other agencies and the private sector on digital security matters.

Curtis Dukes, formerly head of the now defunct Information Assurance branch at NSA, told FCW last year that information sharing efforts between intelligence agencies are often hampered by a declassification process that waters down the usefulness of most threat data, and the directorate seems designed to counter that criticism. It operates out of a new 380,000 square foot building alongside personnel from its sister agency, U.S. Cyber Command and cleared representatives from defense contractors and other federal agencies.

The organization's ambitions are also bold, and it has outlined a portfolio that includes defending U.S. defense assets, protecting critical infrastructure from cyberattacks, raising situational and threat awareness among American commercial enterprise, curbing intellectual property theft by foreign nations and partnering with academia and industry to cultivate a technically minded workforce that treats cybersecurity as a critical component rather than an add on after-the-fact.

In each arena, Barnes said the directorate focused resources on the things only it can do. Success will be measured not by NSA but by the customers it serves, from DOD, intelligence agencies and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to other civilian agencies and the broader cybersecurity community. When it comes to working with the Department of Homeland Security and its component Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the directorate is quickly building relationships while pondering how to share data and work together to push out threat advisories to critical infrastructure, contractors and the private sector at large.

"At NSA I want to do things that nobody else can do," Barnes said. "I don't want to do things that others can do. The world's too big, we have too many priorities, too many pressing needs to pursue duplication out of product."

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.

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