Former Navy secretary calls for minimalist approach to IT security

Richard Danzig argues that the U.S. government should "forsake some efficiencies" in the pursuit of security.

concept cybersecurity art

Former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig has unusual advice for the U.S. government: Enhance cybersecurity by cutting back on overly complex IT systems.

Eschewing a common narrative of society's inexorable march toward the Internet of Things, Danzig called on Washington to "forsake some efficiencies, speed or capabilities" in critical systems "in order to achieve greater security." He made the recommendation in a paper titled "Surviving on a Diet of Poisoned Fruit: Reducing the National Security Risks of America's Cyber Dependencies," published July 21 by the Center for a New American Security.

IT systems are often more complex than necessary, said Danzig, who was an adviser to Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. In a panel discussion hosted by the center, he offered the common inkjet printer as an example of a multifaceted IT system that breeds vulnerabilities. Printers print, of course, and they often fax and scan, but they can also communicate with other devices online via a connected web unknown to many people.

Danzig's answer to that interconnectedness is a bare-bones approach to the critical systems on which the federal government depends. "A strategy of abnegation is founded on the presumption that critical systems should be supported by cyber capabilities that are no more extensive than required to perform their core mission," he wrote.

The cloud should help users distinguish between the computing capabilities they need and want, thus cutting back on unnecessary system complexity, he added.

Any minimalist approach to IT security should be underpinned by a shared understanding among policymakers and the public of their tolerance for cybersecurity risk, which has yet to materialize, he wrote. The lack of a minimum standard for cybersecurity "cripples efforts at consensus and therefore disrupts strategies, undermines legislative proposals, makes budget allocations difficult to size and defend, etc."

In keeping with the grand-strategy theme of the paper, Danzig argued that the cyberspace interests of the United States, China and Russia perhaps overlap more than those countries publicly acknowledge. Even though the United States and China have accused each other of hacking critical infrastructure, none of the countries has launched a cyberattack on another with physical consequences, he concluded. The countries should build on that fragile ground to foreswear cyber intrusions into nuclear systems, he added.

Danzig stuck with his recommendation that Washington cultivate common cyber ground with Beijing even after the Justice Department issued two sets of indictments of Chinese nationals on charges of cyber espionage, he told FCW.

"I think it increases the antagonism and the challenges, but I think it's useful to be straightforward about the intensity of our concerns," he said.

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