Cyber Challenges Expand and Diversify
The Defense Information Systems Agency, also known as DISA, has a global footprint that poses a worldwide, around-the-clock challenge.
“Japan and Korea are going to be very close partners and will help facilitate the fight in the Pacific,” said Don Means, Operations and Infrastructure Center director at DISA. Yet, allies span the globe and are sometimes close to adversaries that could degrade or deny communications. This means that preparedness must also ensure “that we’ve got data pre-positioned,” Means said.
DISA is tasked with providing information technology and communications support to the military and other government agencies. The organization operates 12 field offices, including all combatant commands, and seven network operations centers. These locations are distributed around the world, so much so that it is daytime in at least one facility at any given moment.
To serve diverse organizations with different needs and interests and still innovate requires that some principles are top-of-mind when approaching new technologies.
“The guiding principle for us is, whatever we go after to test and ultimately transition, is that it has to be transitionable,” said Stephen Wallace, chief technology officer and director of the Emerging Technology Directorate at DISA.
While flexibility is valued, there’s also a size issue to address.
“A lot of things that we go after and acquire [are] at a scale of hundreds of thousands if not millions of users,” said Army CW5 Taylor Wells, senior technical advisor at DISA.
DISA is tasked with protecting defense networks of allies as well. This means that many of the initiatives they roll out in the United States are implemented in a dozen or more countries. Therefore, global leadership is required.
“We’re leading the way in many regards, particularly with regard to zero trust and least privilege and being able to fight to deliver capability,” Means said.
Increased security allows integration of commercial devices. These were out of bounds in the past, but technology and necessity allowed evolution. “We’re able to take commercial devices and now access classified data in a variety of ways, and that really became important during the pandemic,” Wallace told SIGNAL Media. This device integration includes other considerations, such as “you have to be very cognizant of where the devices are coming from and the supply chains behind them,” Wallace added.
The human factor is one of the most complex aspects the agency must deal with. “Balancing the people equation into technology at the scale that we are, for the [Defense] Department, it’s nothing that we can turn in a day, even a year, I’d say even five years,” Wells said.
While security is a process that includes educational change, zero trust delivers increased safety standards.
“There’s also the malicious side of the human interaction as well … minimizing the impact that any particular user has when either a mistake or a malicious act occurs is at the core of what we’re trying to do here,” Wallace said.
As rival nations pose challenges in cyberspace, nonstate actors emerge as an increasingly diverse challenge.
The U.S. Southern Command, covering Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean, faces threats, especially from this diverse pool of actors. Drug cartels, insurgent groups with close ties to trafficking or adversarial nations, together with other parties, make up the challenge this command faces in its region.
“Cyber is not bounded geographically anyway, but I would offer that on Southern Command as a challenge, there, everybody is at play and state and nonstate are using tools and techniques that are available for purchase on the dark web, unique to tools that only, you know, top tier actors can develop and deploy,” Means said.
As different groups acquire capabilities reserved for nation-states in the past, the magnitude and diversity of the cyber challenge for DISA are only expected to grow in the future.