"I can't go into the specifics here, but we do see [thefts] from defense industrial base companies," Alexander said, declining to go into details about other attacks. "There are some very public [attacks], though. The most recent one was the RSA exploits." RSA had earlier pinned the attacks on a "nation state."
The attack against RSA, in which the attacker conducted a spearphishing campaign that sent disguised emails containing malware that installed backdoors via a zero-day Adobe Flash exploit, indicates a high level of sophistication by China's hackers, according to Alexander. "The ability to do it against a company like RSA is such a high-order capability that, if they can do it against RSA, that makes other companies vulnerable," he said.
[ For more background, see Cyber Attacks Becoming Top Terror Threat, FBI Says. ]
Alexander admitted that the government needs to do a better job against these attacks. "We need to make it more difficult for the Chinese to do what they're doing," he said. "Intellectual property isn't well protected, and we can do a better job at protecting it."
Sen. Carl Levin cited, as an example, a Carnegie Mellon University study indicating that a Department of Defense pilot program to share malware signatures with defense contractors has not provided companies with a large amount of information not already known to them.
The NSA director admitted that the government needed more real-time capabilities to work with private sector organizations to stop cyber attacks, and perhaps more authority to take action. He cited an attack in which an "adversary" was attempting to exfiltrate 3 gigabytes of data from a defense contractor in a foreign country, and DOD processes for communicating with that company were too manual.
"I think that industry should have the ability to see these attacks and share them with us in real time," he said. "It's like neighborhood watch. Somebody is breaking into a bank, and somebody needs to be in touch with the police to stop it."
Alexander defended the pilot project, saying that the report and assessment were done early on in the project, and noted that the pilot has continued to expand. "Industry has a bunch of signatures, government has those too," he said. "All of us need to work together to provide the best set of signatures." In fact, Alexander said that he supported mandatory reporting of attacks on critical infrastructure in some cases.
Cyber Command continues to build out its capabilities. For example, Alexander noted that the military is establishing branch offices of Cyber Command at each of the different geographical and functional Combatant Commands in order to provide technical expertise and capabilities and integrate those capabilities into planning for the different Combatant Commands. Within recent weeks, the military conducted a major cyber exercise at Nellis Air Force base.
As federal agencies embrace devices and apps to meet employee demand, the White House seeks one comprehensive mobile strategy. Also in the new Going Mobile issue of InformationWeek Government: Find out how the National Security Agency is developing technologies to make commercial devices suitable for intelligence work. (Free registration required.)