Time for U.S. to gut 'malware kingpins'

Experts say the military needs to think in revolutionary terms about cyber warfare and adopt preemptive tactics -- but not act unilaterally.

Shutterstock image (by Sergey Nivens): information networks.

Cyber deterrence doesn't have to be a one-nation game. During a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on Sept. 29, representatives of major cybersecurity firms and think tanks urged American leaders to get more aggressive and build an international cyber enforcement coalition.

"What is the acceptable level of [information] loss for this country?" asked Richard Bejtlich, chief security strategist at FireEye. "Simply by inaction we're tolerating quite a bit right now."

For too long, the U.S. has been like a department store that allows shoplifters to run wild with everything from sensitive personal information to intellectual property, Bejtlich said. But that can and should change.

"It was difficult for us to establish a norm saying we shouldn't steal from the other nations' private sectors," he added. But now that the U.S. and China have brokered a cyber pact that addresses the protection of intellectual property rights, Bejtlich said the U.S. should press the offensive and enlist a global coalition to fight cybercrime.

He added that there are only 100 or so "malware kingpins" worldwide capable of writing the most destructive code, and by working with other countries, the U.S. could gut many hacking organizations before they do more damage.

He argued for both retaliation against hackers and preemptive strikes.

"When something significant happens like [the Office of Personnel Management breach], we should take a response," Bejtlich said, noting that vigilant technologies could enable the military to identify cyberthreats and disrupt adversarial activity before it begins.

Although Bejtlich speculated that the Defense Department's cyber outfits could work with allies to disrupt hackers' capabilities preemptively, New America Foundation Senior Fellow Ian Wallace noted the power of political and economic pressure.

"The deterrence of cyberthreats doesn't have to happen in cyberspace," he said.

Wallace called DOD's revised cyber strategy a "necessary and welcome update" with an "admirable new level of transparency." But he said DOD needs to approach cybersecurity with revolutionary vigor and expose senior commanders to more of the nuts and bolts of cybersecurity.

"Rather than treating cyber operators off to the side as techies, [what's needed is] integrating cyber operators" and having them "go on to command full-spectrum operations," Wallace said.

Bejtlich also called for a U.S. chief information security officer, with authorities comparable to those of U.S. CIO Tony Scott and U.S. CTO Megan Smith.

Nevertheless, Wallace said DOD should not become the private sector's "default choice" for cyber protection.

"If the military becomes the first place that everybody turns to, that's going to become a burden that the military cannot bear in the long term," Wallace said.

DOD's role should largely be limited to alerting companies about incoming threats, he added.

Bejtlich largely agreed, though he said the military should step in to stop an attack on critical infrastructure.

And in the long run, cybersecurity operations might need to become a separate service branch.

"If you want to be able to keep and retain the best [skilled cyber warriors] for the longest term, you're going to need to break them off," Bejtlich said. "Strategic cyber is going to need to be its own service with its own culture."

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