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Defense Bill Approves Offensive Cyber Warfare

Annual defense budget also calls for military to improve defensive cyber capabilities and create a new insider threat program to prevent another WikiLeaks-type breach.

The annual defense budget passed in December affirms that the Department of Defense may carry out offensive cyber attacks to defend U.S. interests and those of its allies. It also requires the military to take certain defensive cyber measures, including the creation of a new insider threat program.

The National Defense Authorization Act doesn't give the military carte blanche to unleash malware across the Web. Rather, according to the act, such attacks must be carried out upon the President's direction, and are subject to both the law of warfare and the War Powers Resolution.

The military has long been interested in developing offensive cyber capabilities, but has rarely been open about it in public. In recent months, however, that's begun to change.

National Security Agency director and Cyber Command commander Gen. Keith Alexander said in October that "the advantage is on the offense" regarding cyber, and that the government should in some cases go after botnets and other malicious actors. Then, in November, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for the first time publicly discussed the fact that it was doing research into offensive cyber capabilities.

[ Learn more about DARPA's study of cyber offense strategies. DARPA Boosts Cybersecurity Research Spending 50%. ]

In addition to affirming the military's right to carry out cyber attacks, the defense budget also sets prescriptions for network defense, sets the stage for an insider threat mitigation program, increases collaboration between the DOD and the Department of Homeland Security, and requires the annual report on the Chinese military to include an analysis of its cyber capabilities.

The act directs the secretary of defense to acquire more advanced cybersecurity capabilities to "discover and isolate" successful attacks for which signatures haven't been developed. The capabilities will need to be "adequate to enable well-trained analysts" to discover advanced persistent threats, and work with endpoints, network gateways, and across global networks. The military will have to report to Congress by April 1 as to how it plans to go about meeting this requirement.

The host-based security will need to be able to block unauthorized software and accept authorized software, constantly monitor system settings, and remediate derivations from baseline settings. At the gateway level, the military must capture and analyze network traffic. Cyber Command will set how much data these systems must capture and store, according to the act.

Included in the act is a push toward standardization across the military's security information and event management systems in an effort to improve Cyber Command's ability to see and correlate data across the military's disparate cybersecurity systems. In another nod toward standardization, rather than the development of government-specific technology, the act builds in a requirement that the military look outside its own borders for this capability, toward commercial sources.

The act also directs the military to increase the "number and skill" of cybersecurity pros. The cyber workforce has become an increasingly critical concern across government, including in the military, and the concern has even led to the creation of an interagency effort, the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education, to accelerate the education and hiring of cyber pros. In addition to hiring more cyber warriors of our own, the act also authorizes the DOD to assign foreign military forces to DOD to train them in the art of cyber war and defense.

As to insider threats, the act requires the military to set up a program over the next two years to detect unauthorized access, use, or transmission of sensitive information. Insider threats have continued to have a raised profile in government since the WikiLeaks debacle unfolded, and the military, home of accused leaker Bradley Manning, has been at the center of much of the debate.

The new law requires the insider threat program to centralize the monitoring and detection of unauthorized activities by monitoring the use of external ports; disabling removable media ports; reporting unusual user activity; implementing role-based access; and using data-loss prevention and data-rights management technology to prevent leaks.

How 10 federal agencies are tapping the power of cloud computing--without compromising security. Also in the new, all-digital InformationWeek Government supplement: To judge the success of the OMB's IT reform efforts, we need concrete numbers on cost savings and returns. Download our Cloud In Action issue of InformationWeek Government now. (Free registration required.)

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