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Posted at 01:57 PM ET, 08/19/2011

Pentagon may expand cyber-security program

The Pentagon is exploring whether to expand a pilot program that protects the networks of defense contractors to include other companies, and even those in industries that serve mainly civilians. But some private sector officials are not sure that the Defense Department should lead the effort.

Speaking at a conference in Baltimore this week, Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III said that the Defense Industrial Base (DIB) Cyber Pilot, which currently involves 20 large defense companies, is already showing signs of success. It relies on classified threat “signatures” or data that can help detect malicious code before it penetrates a network.

The signatures and other data that help detect threats are provided by the National Security Agency, which collects electronic data on foreign adversaries and operates under the auspices of the Pentagon. The signatures are loaded into devices run by the Internet service providers, including AT&T and Verizon, which provide Internet services to the companies.

The voluntary 90-day pilot, which the Pentagon said should be completed by early fall, has already shown that “it stops hundreds of signatures that we wouldn’t previously have seen,” Lynn said. “It appears to be cost-effective.”

The Pentagon has declined to give details to back up Lynn’s assertions. In an email earlier this week, Pentagon spokeswoman April Cunningham said: “We do not yet have enough information regarding the pilot to make any decisions about the success or effectiveness of the pilot.” She added: “We are not yet in a position to discuss specific metrics.”

She declined to say whether the Pentagon tested NSA’s signatures and other data against other models for effectiveness. “It is the long-standing policy of the Department of Defense not to discuss matters of operational security.”

Speaking at a conference run by the Defense Information Systems Agency, Lynn expressed significant concern “that over the past decade we’ve lost terabytes of data to foreign intruders, foreign intelligence services, to attacks on corporate networks of defense companies.” A great deal of it, he said, “concerns our most sensitive systems-- aircraft avionics, surveillance technologies, satellite communication systems, and network security protocols.”

As a result, he said, the Pentagon is considering expanding the pilot to more defense companies, and discussing with other agencies whether to “apply this same concept to other sectors, whether it’s the power sector, nuclear energy, the transportation sector or the financial sector.’’

But some officials in other industries questioned whether the Pentagon is the right leader for the effort. One concern involves privacy. NSA participation — even if tangential-- raises fears that the spy agency may at some point gain access to private citizens’ data. Defense officials have addressed that worry for now by saying that the government will not directly filter the network traffic or receive any of the captured malicious code.

Then there is the issue of who leads the initiative. The Department of Homeland Security, which is involved in the Pentagon’s cyber pilot program, is also working with other critical sectors on cyber security.

A financial services industry official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said his industry would prefer “one point” of collaboration. That point, he said, likely would be DHS. “Let’s not have 10, 20, 30 different bilateral arrangements with each government agency and each sector,” he said. “That would result in a web of confusion.”

A telecom industry official, who also was not authorized to speak publicly, agreed: “What we would like is one consolidated government effort that we can hitch our wagons to.”

By  |  01:57 PM ET, 08/19/2011

 
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