National Intelligence director Dan Coats put the threat to national cybersecurity into context on July 13, 2018, when he said "the warning lights are blinking red again" in a speech before the Hudson Institute, a Washington, DC-based conservative think tank.
Coats was trying to get our attention, says Tonya Ugoretz, director of the Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. She was one of several national security experts to take the stage today at Cyber Live 202, an event hosted by The Washington Post and focused on modern cyber threats to national security.
The system was also "blinking red" back in 2001, when intelligence and law enforcement agencies detected activity signifying a threat to the United States. Now it's happening again, but it's our digital infrastructure that could be under attack, Ugoretz explained. She cited Russia as the most aggressive foreign actor the department sees in cyberspace, "with good reason."
"Aggression is widespread, it's against multiple sectors, it's against multiple types of networks," she said. If we create a dialogue around sharing information, notifying victims if they're hit with intrusion or influence campaigns, we can better plan our defense.
For example, the DHS and FBI issued alerts this year about Russia's efforts against the US and allies, warning defenders to protect against Russian activity in critical infrastructure. The Justice Department now has a brand-new policy to disclose the existence of information warfare attacks against the US political system when there is high confidence in the foreign actor behind it.
These practices are helpful but ultimately weak without leadership from the top. "The President himself does not take seriously the capability of Russian intelligence services," said Mike Rogers, former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and national security commentator for CNN. "It's very, very concerning to me."
Rogers was referring to the recent meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, during which the US President dismissed Russian interference indictments related to activity during the US presidential election. While Putin was prepared for the meeting and knew what he would get out of it, Trump "was not prepared," Rogers said.
The meeting played right into the information operations Russia had been conducting and will continue, he added. "They're getting better at it and they're getting more aggressive about it … this is what I worry about," Rogers emphasized. Intelligence officials monitor Russian bot operations trying to influence different topics every day, and the volume is getting bigger.
Intelligence experts agree a full government approach is needed to tackle the threat. "One of the things no one's really done a good job of so far is imposing a cost on bad state actors for their activities," said Chris Painter, former and first-appointed cyber coordinator for the US State Department. The cost would both punish them and deter them from future activity, he said.
"The President hadn't said, 'If this happens again there will be consequences' … and I think a lot of people in government are waiting for that leadership," Painter continued.
Jason Matheny, director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), spoke to the future and said one of cybersecurity's biggest threats "is sort of boring": 70-80% of threats from nation-states and cybercriminals are social engineering attacks, he noted.
Within the next 5- to ten years, both threats and defenses will become more sophisticated due to machine learning, which is being used to detect phishing emails as they arrive. "There's now an arms race," he said, as people developing phishing attacks use the same technology to create subtle attacks that bypass advanced filters.
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