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Should NSA Be Scanning Business Networks?

After NSA presses for such a role, DHS argues it's better suited. But security experts at RSA conference say there's an alternate approach to strengthening company networks.
To what extent should government agencies become involved in directly helping businesses--including companies providing critical infrastructure services--improve their information security operations?

The Washington Post this week reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been pressing the Obama administration to allow it to scan the networks of hundreds of large U.S. businesses.

But the White House has resisted the proposal, in large part over the privacy concerns related to requiring American businesses--including defense contractors--to submit to the NSA scanning their network. Meanwhile, officials from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have said that while the NSA should have a role, really it's DHS who should be leading the cybersecurity charge.

"Right now there's all this backbiting going on in the press between NSA, on the one hand, and DHS on the other," said Richard Clarke, who served as the counterterrorism czar in the Clinton and Bush administrations, and who's now chairman of Good Harbor Consulting, in a meeting at this week's RSA conference in San Francisco. "That really shows an enormous amount of lack of discipline in the executive branch. The White House and the Pentagon ought to silence that sort of thing. It's all one government. No matter who has the lead, you can count on the other elements to support."

[ See our complete RSA 2012 Security Conference coverage, live from San Francisco. ]

"I side with the administration about this," said Jason Healy, director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at think tank the Atlantic Council, speaking on a panel at RSA. "If we really cared about the private sector, we'd be bending over backwards to make sure they have everything they need, and if they should have what NSA has, then [the agency] should be doing a better job to declassify." Any difficulty in sharing what are essentially threat signatures, he said, simply represented "a failure of imagination."

The suggestion of greater NSA involvement in the networks of businesses has triggered debate about the extent to which an intelligence service should become involved in the day-to-day running of businesses' security operations. For many people, furthermore, the NSA's reputation remains tarnished by its warrantless wiretapping program, if not still the Clipper chip debacle.

"They have a deficit of public trust, and there are some people who--rightly or wrongly--are never going to trust them to be the happy, smiley face," said Clarke. Accordingly, his suggestion is simple: "Have DHS be the connection to the private sector, and to the extent that DHS doesn't have skills that NSA does have, then NSA can provide them to DHS," he said.

Likewise, many privacy experts have called on the NSA to share what it knows, then let businesses use that information to better secure their networks, thus mixing the best of both worlds, while avoiding privacy concerns. "The best capabilities of the private sector network operators [are] that they know their own systems better than the government ever could and are able to act most quickly to stop threats before they can propagate," said Jim Dempsey, VP for public policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, in a blog post. "The best capabilities of the military are the classified insights gleaned from intelligence sources and methods."

Already, the Defense Industrial Base (DIB) Cyber Pilot has begun trialing the sharing of NSA intelligence information--in the form of attack signatures--with defense contractors and Internet service providers, to help them better secure their networks. But participants' initial reaction to the DIB pilot has apparently been, "So what?"

"They didn't provide the defense companies anything they didn't already know," said Clarke, noting that of the 25 threat profiles shared by the NSA, most of the companies already knew about 24 of them. "If the government wants to have companies engaged in that kind of a program, then the government is going to have to open the kimono a little more," he said. "I find it hard to believe that NSA didn't have more that it could have offered. ... It's a lot of hassle to get one profile."

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.)

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