“We hope the . . . cyber pilot can be the beginning of something bigger,” Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III said at a global security conference in Paris on Thursday. “It could serve as a model that can be transported to other critical infrastructure sectors, under the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security.”
The prospect of a role for the NSA, the nation’s largest spy agency and a part of the Defense Department, in helping Internet service providers filter domestic Web traffic already had sparked concerns among privacy activists. Lynn’s suggestion that the program might be extended beyond the work of defense contractors threatened to raise the stakes.
James X. Dempsey, vice president for public policy at the Center for Democracy & Technology, a civil liberties group, said that limiting the NSA’s role to sharing data is “an elegant solution” to the long-standing problem of how to use the agency’s expertise while avoiding domestic surveillance by the government. But, he said, any extension of the program must guarantee protections against government access to private Internet traffic.
“We wouldn’t want this to become a backdoor form of surveillance,” Dempsey said.
Officials say the pilot program does not involve direct monitoring of the contractors’ networks by the government. The program uses NSA-developed “signatures,” or fingerprints of malicious code, and sequences of suspicious network behavior to filter the Internet traffic flowing to major defense contractors. That allows the Internet providers to disable the threats before an attack can penetrate a contractor’s servers. The trial is testing two particular sets of signatures and behavior patterns that the NSA has detected as threats.
The Internet carriers are AT&T, Verizon and CenturyLink. Together they are seeking to filter the traffic of 15 defense contractors, including Lockheed, Falls Church-based CSC, McLean-based SAIC and Northrop Grumman, which is moving its headquarters to Falls Church. The contractors have the option, but not the obligation, to report the success rate to the NSA’s Threat Operations Center.
All three of the Internet carriers declined to comment on the pilot program. Several of the defense contractors declined to comment as well.
Partnering with the major Internet providers “is probably the technically quickest way to go and the best way to go” to defend dot-com networks, said Gen. Keith B. Alexander, who heads the NSA and the affiliated U.S. Cyber Command at Fort Meade, testifying before Congress in March.