Information sharing is complicated, even inside government

Sharing cybersecurity threat information among federal law enforcement agencies generates tension, but that's not a bad thing, say FBI, DOJ and DHS cyber officials.

Shutterstock image (by Pavel Ignatov): Alert icon.
 

Although the federal government is still trying to motivate private companies to share cyber threat information with it, sharing similar cyber threat and forensic data among the FBI, Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security is complicated too, officials say.

"There's always some tension between DHS threat mitigation and law enforcement threat response and prosecution" when it comes to sharing data on cyber intrusions at companies and other cyber incidents, said John Felker, director of the Department of Homeland Security's National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center.

In a panel at an April 6 FedScoop cybersecurity conference, Felker said DHS, the FBI and DOJ have engaged in an ongoing dialogue over the last few years about how to use data gathered in cyber intrusion investigations to best serve each agency's diverse interests.

DHS, for instance, is responsible for mitigating threats and sharing information about how to stop threats to other companies and entities. At the same time, the FBI is more concerned about using threat information and data to track down perpetrators, while the Justice Department is concerned about having the best data to prosecute hackers.

All of those interests don't necessarily hang together easily, according to Josh Goldfoot, principle deputy chief at the DOJ's criminal division, computer crime and intellectual property section.

"Hacking cases are difficult," said Goldfoot, because there are points of conflict for the various agencies interested in fighting the intruder, finding the intruder and prosecuting them.

For investigators, cases in which companies who invite federal agencies to help them with network intrusions present opportunities to examine hackers' activities and goals in real time as they progress through networks. They also generate material that can be used by prosecutors in the criminal case against them. That can create difficulties for DHS, the agency charged with kicking hackers out.

"We want to know what's going on, so we can pass that threat information along" to others to help them mitigate it, said Felker.

"The FBI needs context for threat sharing," said Trent Teyema, section chief at that agency's cyber readiness group. "We're hunters," he said.

With such differing sensibilities, the FBI, DOJ and DHS have learned to share threat information in subtle ways. The information gathered in some big cyber intrusion cases, said the officials, is made available through side channels.

"We do stick [the information] out there in a bunch of trees," said Felker, dispersing it with everyday data, making it appear as mundane as patch information or other ordinary data, he said.

Felker, Teyema and Goldfoot said commercial industry can take that kind of collaboration as an example in how to cooperate on their own threat data. Some industries, such as energy companies, are sharing formally and informally. Teyema and Goldfoot cited regular monthly meetings of oil companies in FBI facilities in Houston as an example of that cooperation.

In those meetings, oil company executives compare and share data and examples in face-to-face contact while making sure proprietary data is not in the picture.

"There is a desperate need for information sharing," said Goldfoot. "The bad guys are doing their own information sharing" making computer crime tools available on the dark web for under $1,000.

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