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Cybersecurity Tentacles Entwine Government

Information protection pervades discussion of 4th generation homeland security.

Homeland Security Conference 2014 Online Show Daily, Day 2

It is not surprising that cybersecurity would dominate the discussion on the second day of the AFCEA Homeland Security Conference in Washington, D.C. But the depth and breadth and variety of topics surrounding cybersecurity and information protection in all its forms indicates the degree to which the information security mission has engulfed every department and agency at all levels of government.

And for good reason. John Streufert, director of Federal Network Resilience at the Department of Homeland Security offered some staggering statistics. “Through DHS, our U.S. CERT center, we’re monitoring trillions of cyber-related events every three days and billions of potentially defective hardware, software and account changes,” Streufert said. “Every three months, we’re at the mark of about 10,000 successful attacks and an unknown number of these attacks have resulted in repairs. Terabytes of data have been stolen over time.”

He cited a Center for Strategic and International Studies report from last year that indicated efforts like the Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation program can stop 85 percent of the attacks by finding, fixing and reporting the cyber problems. Additionally, the report revealed that 75 percent of attacks used known vulnerabilities that could be patched. And more than 90 percent of successful attacks required only the most basic cyberattack techniques.

Few were using the term “cybersecurity” in the mid-1990s, but Sandy Grimes, former Central Intelligence Agency officer, initiated the discussion on the importance of protecting information with her personal account of what it took to track down national traitor Aldrich Ames.

Ames had been a colleague for years and a car pool partner before selling the names and identifying information of Soviet and Russian agents working with the CIA. In that case, the unauthorized selling for critical infrastructure led to multiple arrests and executions, forced the CIA to implement “draconian” security measures and dramatically hindered the agency’s efforts in the former Soviet Union.

Grimes and her former colleague, the late Jeanne Vertefeuille, co-authored a book, Circle of Treason, detailing the hunt for a mole within their ranks. During her presentation as the morning keynote speaker, Grimes recalled that encrypted laptops were cutting edge at the time and that the CIA was still using IBM typewriters. Still, her dramatic account illustrated the dire consequences of failing to secure information.

The topic of data protection—an entirely different tentacle of data protection—also crept into the first panel discussion about the role of big data in federal emergency management. Panelists pointed out that government agencies store personally identifiable information that can be a tempting target for criminal groups looking to steal identities for nefarious reasons. “The whole challenge of educating folks who actually manage and own the data sets is important,” said Adrian Gardner, chief information officer, Federal Emergency Management Agency. “We’re trying to put in place checks and balances, but I’m not sure those checks and balances are full proof.” He added that agencies have to carefully assess how important the data is to the organization and the ramifications of inadvertently releasing the data.

A panel discussion on the role of laboratories in supporting the homeland security mission also touched on the importance of cybersecurity. DHS operates a cyber information operations center that monitors network activity at 100 different sites “to determine what the threat is trying to do to those sites,” and then feeding the information “back into our strategic intelligence stream,” reported Timothy Burke, a program manager with the DHS Office of National Laboratories. “We have a way of anonymizing network data and are arranging to make access to that for industry building cybersecurity technologies.” He added that it is a unique set of data that could be useful for technology development.

Luncheon keynote speaker James Blasingame, deputy national intelligence manager (NIM) for the Western Hemisphere for homeland within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, also brought up securing cyberspace as a major challenge facing the country. “We must identify and threats, defy actors the opportunity to operate within our borders, protect the nation’s critical infrastructure, key resources and secure our cyberspace while always acting in accordance with our laws and regulations,” he said.

The two afternoon panels were specifically geared toward the cyber discussion—one on the professionalization of the cyber career field and the other on the Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation program, which seeks to bolster cybersecurity across the entire government.

On the first day of the conference, Adm. Thad Allen, USCG (Ret.), noted that nobody was talking about cybersecurity after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. On the second day, individual speakers and panelists from nearly 20 organizations emphasized a wide range of topics related to cyber and the protection of data, including espionage, identity theft, specific cyber protection facilities, business opportunities, the cyber career field and government-wide cybersecurity efforts. Those day two discussions indicate the degree to which things have changed in the cyber world.