Thursday, May 07, 2009

Thoughts on Cyber Command

I've been blogging about various cyber command proposals for a few years, but right now there is some real movement at the combatant command level. Ellen Nakashima's article Cyber-Command May Help Protect Civilian Networks offers the latest details.

The Pentagon is considering whether to create a new cyber-command that would oversee government efforts to protect the military's computer networks and would also assist in protecting the civilian government networks, the head of the National Security Agency said yesterday [Tuesday].

The new command would be headquartered at Fort Meade, the NSA's director, Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, told the House Armed Services terrorism subcommittee.

Alexander, who is a front-runner to assume control of the command if it is created, said its focus would be to better protect the U.S. military's computers by marrying the offensive and defensive capabilities of the military and the NSA.

Through the command, the NSA would also provide technical support to the Department of Homeland Security, which is in charge of protecting civilian networks and helps safeguard the energy grid and other critical infrastructure from cyber-attack, Alexander said.

He stressed that the NSA does not want to run or operate the civilian networks, but help Homeland Security improve its efforts...

As proposed by the Pentagon, the command would fall under the U.S. Strategic Command, which is tasked with defending against attacks on vital interests.


The highlighted sections reinforce number 2 of my Predictions for 2008 made in December 2007. A few months prior I argued that the US Needs Cyber NORAD.

The written testimonies are posted on the U.S. House of Representatives, House Armed Services Committee Web site.

The new Cyber Command will most likely be a subordinate unified command under US Strategic Command.

I'd like to briefly respond to Robert Graham's post Why Cyber Commands Fail. He says in part:

What the military wants is a hacker squad that they can give a specific objective, and have the hackers carry out that objective within a specific timeframe. For example, they might tell hackers to take out Iran's radar at midnight so that fighter jets can enter their airspace a few minutes later to bomb their nuclear plants. That's not going to work.

What you could do is tell hackers to go after Iran and do whatever they can to disrupt their nuclear developments. One hacker might find a way to shut down safety controls and cause a nuclear meltdown, another might jam the centrifuges, another might change the firmware on measuring equipment to incorrect measure the concentration of U238.

Or, you could give the hackers six months to infiltrate Iran's computers, then come back with a list of options. Maybe disabling the radar system will be one of them, maybe not. But that's not the sort of thing the military is tasked to do - that's more an intelligence operation the CIA would be doing..

China and Russia understand this. They don't directly employ hackers or tell the hackers to accomplish certain goals. They let the hackers have free range to do whatever they want. If the hackers come across something interesting, such as plans for the Joint Strike Fighter, the government buys it, but no government official ever told the hackers specifically to steal those plans...

So how can the United States get in on this sort of asymmetric warfare action?

The first thing is that you have to stoke some sort of nationalism in the way that Russia and China do. I'm not sure this is in our character (especially under the current president), however, so we'd probably have to find some alternative. Instead of pro-USA nationalism we could instead focus on human rights activism. The government could spend a lot of time talking to the press about the sorts of human rights abuses that go on in Russia and China. Get our own USA hackers thinking about human rights as their own causus belli.

The second thing they need to do is create a climate where our own hackers can operate. I would gladly hack into Iranian computers, but I'm not sure how this fits into US law...

This would be similar to the "letters of mark and reprisal" used by governments during the 1700s. In those days, national navies were too small to patrol the entire ocean. Therefore, governments licensed privateers to prey upon a hostile nation's shipping. The privateers kept half the booty, and gave the other half to their respective government. This is essentially what China and Russia have done.

A third thing our military would need to do is train our hackers in the target language. Foreign hackers usually learn English, but American hackers rarely learn foreign languages, especially Russian, Chinese, or Farsi (Iranian). If we want to encourage our hackers to go after those countries in the same way they come after us, we need to encourage them to learn those languages...

The fourth thing our military would need to do is fix their horrid purchasing processes...

Note that I think the individuals who run our military are very, very smart. I've met several generals and colonels who understand this. The problem is that while individuals are smart, the organization is dumb as a rock. The organization crushes precisely the sort of creative thinking need to have a successful "cyber" offensive capability.


Robert has a lot of good ideas here. In Air Force Cyber Panel I talked about a clash of models between the United States and places like China. On the one hand we have a military-industrial complex supported by a vast contracting force vs a country with a true "people's army," containing uniformed military, semi-military, and pure civilians who work with the others to achieve broadly common goals.

I don't think we will ever see any official support for the privateer concept. China doesn't even recognize their own people's involvement in hacking, since they frequently repeat the line that "China doesn't support hacking."

The major benefit I see from a Cyber Command is providing a career path and organizational support for military personnel. Until that exists many people who would want to be in the military doing cyber operations will reach a point where leaving their service is their best option.


Richard Bejtlich is teaching new classes in Las Vegas in 2009. Regular Las Vegas registration ends 1 July.

1 comment:

Dying Canaries said...

Man, I have been waiting for someone to point this stuff out.

The two CRITICAL points:

1. "They let the hackers have free range to do whatever they want."

Vulnerabilities are, by nature, random. The more skilled the attacker, the more random "luck" they have. But still ultimately random. You can't set objectives in the same way, it's like a flea market.

2. "The first thing is that you have to stoke some sort of nationalism in the way that Russia and China do."

Exactly the problem. Hackers in Russia are nationalist, in the U.S. they tend to be either leftist or anarchist. This is a really serious issue for the future of American intelligence. As security becomes more popular in the US I forsee a rise in nationalist involvement, but the best way to accelerate that is to tacitly consent. But how do you do that, other than through some high profile acquittal of an American accused of attacking assets within a country with hostile network presence? 21st century foreign relations are too sensitive to publish a new version of mark and reprisal.

Maybe the best way would be to invert the consent and publish a list of "networks of consequence" to which current computer crime statutes will be applied (.mil, .gov, most allied .com, .uk, etc.) And in so doing, the implication is that those networks which are left off the list are of no issue, just as stealing something off the shelves at a store carries consequence, whereas picking something out of a trash can does not.

"We're not telling people to attack your networks...we're just not going to waste our time, effort, and money doing your job for you."