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

The spy agency's deputy director said its new cyber directorate is focused on protecting vaccine research from hackers and supporting activities that help get Americans back to work.

NSA ft meade sign official nsa photo
 

Optional caption goes here. Optional caption goes here. Optional caption goes here. Optional caption goes here.

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."

NEXT STORY: Karen Evans to be next DHS CIO

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.