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RSA Conference 2011: Serious Keynotes: DoD & CyberCommand

CyberCommand, DoD and emerging threats

One thing you can say about RSA is that they have some serious people for their keynotes. Last year, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano spoke. Earlier this week, Deputy Secretary of Defense, William J Lynn III gave a talk on the his view of the evolution of the cyber-threats. On Thursday, the NSA head and commander of the US Military’s CyberCommand talked about how cyber security is a “team sport.”

Deputy Secretary of Defense, William J Lynn III
Sec. Lynn’s talk was what you would expect to get from a Deputy Secretary of Defense. He was serious, spoke clearly and in stentorian tones. His presentation was formal and structured, and laid out the case for an expanded government presence in Cyberspace. Lynn’s first presented his threat model, which is a prioritized list of threats from least to greatest.

  1. Infiltration of our networks: This is the kind of hacking we all think of.
  2. Disruption of our networks. This includes DDOS attacks, of the kind that have been recently attributed to the group Anonymous.
  3. Destruction of our networks: This include actions which could lead to destruction of physical property and loss of life. Lynn’s argument is that we need to be prepared for this new threat.

In response to these threats Lynn mentioned that there is a new government strategy coming out shortly called Cyber 3.0. That strategy includes 5 pillars:

  1. The Defense Department should recognize that “Cyber” as Lynn said, is a threat domain as serious as air, land and sea.
  2. Network need to be equipped with “Active Defensives”, which sounds like anti-virus software on a much larger domain.
  3. The DoD needs to Ensure that critical infrastructure is protected. This includes government and financial systems,  and physical assets like the power grid.
  4. Building collective cyber-defenses with our allies. This is a marked change from the previous administrations go-it-alone approach.
  5. Marshal our technical and human resources to remain pre-eminent in in cyberspace. This included the introduction of a program akin to the cyber-security equivalent of the Civilian Conservation Corp from the 1930’s.

There was a strong suggestion that the government would be strengthening its cyber security in the coming years. However, what was notably absent from Lynn’s talk was any discussion of civil liberties.

General Keith B. Alexander, U.S. Cyber Command and National Security Agency
The opening keynote for Thursday was from General Keith B. Alexander, U.S. Cyber Command and National Security Agency/Central Security Service. He has spoken at RSA before, when he was merely the NSA Director. His talk was entitled “Active Defense and Concepts on a Secure Zone.” Many of his points were echoed in Lynn’s talk. What was different was the tone, and the substance as well.

First off, this is an Army General who has humor. He made a few wisecracks that were well received by the audience of an estimated 7000 people. Second, he believes that the US does not have to choose between Civil Liberties or

His role as head of CyberCommand is to secure the DoD networks. “We are scanned 1 Million times a day and get attacked 20,000 times a day.” Clearly, this is a big job.

Like Lyons he talked about making “cyberspace” a military theatre. Like Lynn, he talked about having “Active Defenses”, which means dynamic and adaptable defenses. He made a reference to the French attempt at thwarting German invsion in WWI via the Maginot line. This was ultimately ineffective, since Germany attacked via Belgium to the north. The point being made is that we need to adapt to an ever changing foe.

What was impressive about this talk was the General’s candor. He said “We do not have situational awareness” of what is on the Internet. This seemed to be a plea to the audience to come up with something.

Also a unique part of the speech was his call to help our schools do better in STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. That the military would make a better case of this than the civilian leader was an interesting contrast.

With all the General’s talk of cyber-security as a team sport, it could almost lead one to believe that public-private partnership in this area could be successful.

More Stories By Bill Roth

Bill Roth is a Silicon Valley veteran with over 20 years in the industry. He has played numerous product marketing, product management and engineering roles at companies like BEA, Sun, Morgan Stanley, and EBay Enterprise. He was recently named one of the World's 30 Most Influential Cloud Bloggers.