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In cyberspace, no one can hear you scream

In cyberspace, no one can hear you scream

Confusion is reigning supreme within the world of US online security.

When the United States government's head of cybersecurity, Rod Beckstrom, quit his post on March 5, it wasn't the normally quiet and discreet send-off senior members of that country's intelligence community prefer. In the closed, windowless world where the capabilities of America's giant covert electronic spying and information warfare apparatus is tested daily, Beckstrom had remained a believer that civilians rather than generals should control US cyber defences.

That view did not endear him to the country's chief eavesdropper and cipher expert, the National Security Agency, which has found its clandestine activities increasingly in the media spotlight as US government and corporate targets are electronically shaken down for information from abroad.

Some of the so-called cyber penetrations of US interests, widely believed to be part of a co-ordinated effort by established rivals such as China and Russia, included the shutdown of parts of the Pentagon's email system.

Other reported incidents include technical documents relating to the US presidential helicopter, Marine One, appearing on Iranian file-sharing servers.

As director of the National Cyber Security Centre, part of the Department of Homeland Security, Beckstrom would have known that political pressure on the NSA was mounting. But what came next was unexpected. As a parting gift to the NSA, Beckstrom threw a political hand grenade into the spy agency's bunker, penning an acrid letter of resignation that essentially accused the NSA of hijacking the wider national cybersecurity agenda and smothering the efforts of other government agencies. It's unclear how a copy of Beckstrom's resignation letter to Department of Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano found its way into US newspapers and wire services within48 hours.

"NSA effectively controls DHS cyber efforts through its detailees, technology insertions and the proposed move of [DHS facilities] to a Fort Meade NSA facility," Beckstrom complained.

"NSA currently dominates most national cyber efforts . . . I believe this is a bad strategy on multiple grounds. The threats to our democratic processes are significant if all top-level government network security and monitoring are handled by any one organisation (either directly or indirectly)."

Ironically, Beckstrom's resignation became effective on Friday, March 13.

While the letter laid bare long-standing differences between civilian and military arms of the US government over computer security issues, seasoned observers interpreted Beckstrom's resignation as just the latest flare-up in an internal turf war over who controls the proliferating US arsenal of informatic weaponry and defences.

Much of the tension can be traced back to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which promoted apocalyptic concepts such as a Digital Pearl Harbour, through which the US could be crippled via a remote conquest of civilian and military systems. It was not a concept the military - whose job it is to visit such feats on its adversaries - embraced from the outset.

But at the same time, the military was at war with itself.

In August 2008, the air force abruptly pulled the plug on what had appeared to be the military's first real foray into dedicated computer warfare operations - a creation known as Cyber Command that was intended to have about 8000 serving members.

One indicator of the group's potential ambitions was its adoption and recycling of the insignia of the Cold-War era Strategic Air Command, which ran the air force's long bomber fleet charged with delivering nuclear payloads of apocalyptic proportions to communist adversaries.

The logo features a steel gauntlet clenched into a fist holding an olive branch and flanked by three red lightning bolts.

But the notion of a knight in shining armour was tarnished by a series of embarrassing mishaps that made Defence secretary Robert Gates lose confidence in the top brass of the provisional new Cyber Command.

One incident was distinctly Strangelovian. In 2007, a B52 bomber laden with six armed nuclear missiles (an anomaly in itself) flew across the US, a situation that translated into the air force being unable to account for those weapons for many hours.

At a time when the US had become increasingly worried that hostile countries and non-state actors could soon have nuclear capabilities, mislaying nuclear warheads - accidentally or otherwise - was not a good look.

Gates dispensed with many of the civilian and military leaders connected with the scandal, and Cyber Command soon found itself temporarily suspended from duty after its intended masters found themselves put in charge of a newly created Air Force Nuclear Command charged with better managing the instruments of Armageddon.

But in October 2008, the cyber capability was resurrected at the USAF's Space Command - which coincidently runs the US intercontinental ballistic missile fleet as well as satellites.

Space Command's insignia has a distinctly more modern look and feel - an arrow that is essentially the same as that worn by the protagonists in the science fiction series Star Trek.

The strategic rather than political thinking behind that move was articulated in a speech in February by the general in charge of the US Air Force Space Command, Bob Kehler. The logic now goes that there are synergies between outer space and cyberspace.

"You know, sometimes I think that boundaries are those things we draw to confuse ourselves and help the enemy because space and cyberspace don't respect geographic boundaries," Kehler said.

"It isn't the same concept in space and cyberspace. There are boundaries there, but the space boundary is largely where Bernoulli meets Kepler. "The cyber boundary, I would argue, is maybe a legal boundary, or a moral boundary. Some other boundary . . . but it is not a physical boundary the way we have come to think of military operations in the past."

Some joke the real logic behind Cyber Command's new home is that in space, no one can hear you scream.

Image issues

  • Before he resigned, Beckstrom believed that civilians rather than generals should control US cyber defences.
  • The NSA has found its activities increasingly in the media spotlight.
  • The notion of a knight in shining armour was tarnished by embarrassing mishaps.

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