Defense Media Network

IT and Cybersecurity

Growing threats and complex issues for homeland security

Homeland security is a concept as old as the first human communities. But a major modern component – cybersecurity – was born in the late 20th century. Cybersecurity threats have risen to become “one of the most serious economic and national security threats our nation faces” in the 21st, according to President Barack Obama.

Part of the problem is that every government agency, military service, educational institution, nongovernment organization (NGO), and business has its own concept of both threat and protection. One recent attempt to define cybersecurity as part of an international set of standards was called so broad as to be meaningless.

Among the more generally accepted approaches, however, cybersecurity is defined as “the prevention of damage to, the protection of and the restoration from loss to computers, electronic communications systems and services, and wire and electronic communications, including information contained therein, to ensure its availability, integrity, authentication, confidentiality and non-repudiation.”

In warning of a possible “cyber-Katrina,” the president’s controversial assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, John Brennan, said, “our nation’s security and economic prosperity depend on the security, stability and integrity of communications and information infrastructure that are largely privately owned and globally operated.” His comment was cited in the Cybersecurity Act of 2010, which supporters said would increase public- and private-sector collaboration on cybersecurity issues, especially those to which Brennan referred, foster and fund continued cybersecurity research, and raise public awareness of the threat.

That bill came under fire for a clause granting the president power to “order the limitation or shutdown of Internet traffic to and from any compromised federal government or United States critical infrastructure information system or network.” The U.S.-based international Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights advocacy and legal organization, denounced it as endorsing a “potentially dangerous approach that favors the dramatic over the sober response.”

In June 2010, new legislation – the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010 – seemed to extend that even further, granting the president emergency powers over the Internet, a provision that quickly became known as “the kill switch.” Two Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee co-authors – Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and ranking minority member Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine – rejected the criticism in a statement, claiming their bill actually would constrain “existing broad presidential authority to take over telecommunications networks” while addressing an urgent security need.

“The Internet may have started out as a communications oddity some 40 years ago, but it is now a necessity of modern life – and, sadly, one that is under constant attack,” Lieberman said in introducing the bill. “It must be secured.

“For all of its ‘user-friendly’ allure, the Internet can also be a dangerous place, with electronic pipelines that run directly into everything from our personal bank accounts to key infrastructure to government and industrial secrets. Our economic security, national security, and public safety are now all at risk from new kinds of enemies – cyber-warriors, cyber-spies, cyber-terrorists, and cyber-criminals.”

Part of the problem is that every government agency, military service, educational institution, nongovernment organization (NGO), and business has its own concept of both threat and protection. One recent attempt to define cybersecurity as part of an international set of standards was called so broad as to be meaningless.

The controversies surrounding those legislative efforts highlight the difficulties of establishing necessary and effective protection of virtually every aspect of modern society – now inexorably tied to the Internet and a host of private intranets and classified networks – while not curtailing the free and nearly instantaneous communications the entire world has come to depend upon and take as their right. Even authoritarian governments with traditionally tight grips on the freedoms and activities of their citizens have found it difficult, if not impossible, to curtail access to the so-called “global information highway.”

But the Internet also has become a favorite for the full range of criminal activities, from child pornography to copyright piracy, money laundering to funding terrorists, industrial and government espionage to precise instructions on how to create deadly poisons, nuclear explosives, massive non-nuclear bombs, and improvised explosive devices (IEDS), the primary killer of American and allied warfighters in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perhaps most important, however, is its use by cyber terrorists – and, it is believed, government-sanctioned or -employed hackers – to deliver computer viruses, overload servers and trunk lines, and even take control of vital systems, from electric grids to traffic signals to nuclear power plant safety systems. That level of cyber threat goes far beyond the early days of largely annoying viruses and Trojan horses or even sophisticated criminal activities, and elevates it to the level of cyberwar.

“Over the past few decades, our society has become increasingly dependent on the Internet, including our military, government and businesses of all kinds. While we have reaped enormous benefits from this powerful technology, unfortunately our enemies have identified cyberspace as an ideal 21st century battlefield,” noted Senate Federal Financial Management Subcommittee Chairman Tom Carper, D-Del., the third author of the National Asset Act. “We have to take steps now to modernize our approach to protecting this valuable, but vulnerable, resource.”

Virtually every nation and international organization has established its own cyber defense structure. Some rely heavily on their militaries to combat the most serious threats, others on civilian law enforcement agencies. Some, after identifying and arresting the most “talented” hackers, have put them to work countering the efforts of their former cyberspace colleagues – or, more ominously, forming the nucleus of an official government cyberwarfare contingent. China has been the most open and active in that respect, with official military documents proclaiming the nation’s intent to become the world’s first and most capable cyberwar superpower.

In January 2010, China was accused of using its thousands of hackers – known as Hongke (Red Guests) – to launch what Google senior vice president David Drummond called a “sophisticated” attack on his and at least 34 other U.S. companies, including Yahoo, Symantec, Adobe, Northrop Grumman, and Dow Chemical. A number of countries – including Iran, India, and Japan – have since accused China of cyber attacks on their industries and infrastructure, with much of that thought to be the work of legions of trained military hackers, whose numbers have been estimated between 50,000 and 100,000, as well as nonstate individual and group hackers thought to number in the millions.

Even so, the United States and Russia ranked above China in a February 2010 analysis of the world’s top 10 malware-hosting nations by IT security firm Sophos, although previous reports had said the People’s Republic was home to more than half the world’s Internet troublemakers.

The Internet, created in the 1960s to enhance communications between the U.S. military and its industrial and academic contractor and research community, is key to today’s cybersecurity concerns. Since the graphical World Wide Web was overlaid on the then newly public global network some three decades later, it has become the centerpiece in a rapid and remarkable reshaping of the way people, businesses, and governments communicate and interact.

As it has expanded to every part of the Earth in far less time than any previous technology, the vast majority of the planet’s population has become accustomed to – and highly dependent on – such resulting services and capabilities as ATMs; personal computers; email; online banking, shopping, and bill-paying; real-time global conferencing, project work, and management; immediate access to nearly the entirety of human knowledge; and more. All of this has increased the vulnerability of users to cyber attack, an unprecedented exposure to hostile actions by government and nongovernment actors halfway around the world.

Cybersecurity generally is divided into two semi-separate communities: military offensive and defensive efforts, falling under the 21st century concept of cyberwarfare, and civilian government/industry/academia/private citizen efforts, also encompassing both offense and defense.

The first two U.S. administrations of the new millennium have sought to raise awareness within all those groups to the dangers related to a networked world. Homeland security and cybersecurity became the nation’s fastest growing degree programs – from junior college two-year associates to full doctorates – as jobs within those new disciplines proliferated. New government offices and agencies were created, such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Cyber Security Research and Development Center; the Office of Cybersecurity and Communications (and its National Cyber Security Division); the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT); and the National Cybersecurity & Communications Integration Center (NCCIC), among others.

“All Americans have an important role to play in securing our computer systems and cyber networks,” DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said in March 2010 in announcing a new National Cybersecurity Awareness Campaign. “We are challenging our nation’s best and brightest to utilize their expertise and creativity to devise new ways to engage the public in the shared responsibility of safeguarding our cyber resources and information.”

In addition to new efforts under the broad umbrella of DHS, cybersecurity offices and programs have proliferated across federal and state governments. From the new White House Cybersecurity Coordinator and Critical Infrastructure Protection Board to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) co-sponsored Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS) at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., the United States has been on a constantly evolving and expanding mission to protect both public and private cyber assets and infrastructure.

Prev Page 1 2 3 Next Page


J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-377">

    This is a very interesting article, especially considering all the media time the WikiLeaks situation has been receiving. It is also interesting that the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010 was passed just months before WikiLeaks starting releasing the newest wave of information. This is definitely a technology field will grow exponentially in the future!