The Challenges of Coordinating Cybersecurity

By / 11.12.2010

It goes without saying that National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command are playing a significant role in defending military and government computer networks.  It appears they’re now playing a role defending domestic U.S. civilian computer networks as well.  In past statements, General Keith Alexander – head of NSA and Cyber Command – said that the DoD entities would not be involved in the protection of domestic civilian networks because it is the purview of the Department of Homeland Security.  Despite those statements, a memorandum of agreement released on October 13 announced that the DoD and DHS would coordinate their cybersecurity efforts, collocating personnel.

While the NSA and Cyber Command both fall under the purview of the DoD, their missions are different.  The NSA is a hybrid civilian/military entity whose main function is to gather signals intelligence from foreign communications and provide information assurance to prevent foreign adversaries from accessing classified materials.  Cyber Command is a new, purely military entity that is responsible for providing the U.S. military with both offensive and defensive capabilities in cyberspace.

Because the NSA was at the center of the Bush administration’s domestic wiretapping scandal in the years just after 9/11, its involvement with protecting domestic computer networks makes privacy advocates uneasy. They’re worried that the NSA might use its new role to monitor U.S citizens. However, it’s worth noting that the NSA’s participation with U.S. domestic computer networks is not unprecedented.  In February, the NSA assisted Google in investigating an attack against the company in which it is believed that Chinese hackers stole large amounts of intellectual property as well as information about Chinese human rights activists.  More recently, the NSA was tasked with executing  “Perfect Citizen,” a program that gives NSA access to U.S. critical infrastructure networks in order to detect cyberspace threats. This means NSA would deploy sensors on many large privately owned networks.

Meanwhile, General Alexander stated in September that he did not believe Cyber Command should operate in the civilian sphere. However, that statement contradicts the memorandum of agreement, which specifically directs Cyber Command to locate personnel at a DHS facility to provide support and “operational synchronization.”  It also instructs Cyber Command to coordinate operational and mission planning with DHS and NSA.  Moreover, Cyber Command’s involvement with civilian networks was presaged by the June 2009 DoD memorandum announcing its formation which specifically states that part of its mission would be to protect civilian networks.

The question now is: how much of a role will DoD play? How much of a role should it play? In 2003, a presidential directive established DHS as the agency in charge of coordinating the overall effort of securing civilian networks.  The agency has since written a strategy and will to hire large numbers of cybersecurity professionals over the next few years, indicating the agency will maintain a large role in protecting civilian networks.

But critical cyber experience and technical expertise lies with the military, which would be foolish to ignore.   Furthermore, DHS wants to work with the military, admitting that it has at least contemplated leveraging NSA assets in its efforts to put together a comprehensive plan to protect critical cyberspace assets.  Even so, it’s not that straight forward: as the NSA wiretapping scandal shows, DoD’s involvement in civilian networks would stir civil liberties controversy.

Currently, no overarching cybersecurity strategy exists that clarifies agencies’ responsibilities.  Despite sweeping cybersecurity legislation being proposed in Congress – particularly by Senators Lieberman, Carper, and Collins – the White House must step in to clarify these roles.

photo credit: Patrick Hoesly