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FBI cyber cop says 'very existence' of US under threat

As DHS and NSA ratchet 'Einstein' intrusion detector

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Cyber attacks threaten the "very existence" of the US, according to a top FBI official charged with worrying about such things.

"The cyber threat can be an existential threat - meaning it can challenge our country's very existence, or significantly alter our nation's potential," Steven Chabinsky was quoted by Computerworld as telling a gathering of government IT types at the Federal Office Systems Exposition, better known as FOSE, in Washington DC on Tuesday.

"How we rise to the cybersecurity challenge will determine whether our nation's best days are ahead of us or behind us," he added.

Chabinsky wears a trio of hats in the cyber-wars. He's the assistant deputy director of National Intelligence for Cyber, the chair of the National Cyber Study Group, and the director of the Joint Interagency Cyber Task Force.

Whether you think he is merely fear-mongering in an attempt to bolster his budget's bottom line or instead calling attention to genuine - and heinous - vulnerabilities, Chabinsky was certainly emphatic in his warnings. "I am convinced that given enough time, motivation and funding," he said, "a determined adversary will always - always - be able to penetrate a targeted system."

Although cyber-terrorism is his top priority, Chabinsky is also worried about cyber-snooping. His concerns include foreign agents and criminals who "seek every day to steal our state secrets and private sector intellectual property, sometimes for the purpose of undermining the stability of our government by weakening our economic or military supremacy".

And then there's cyber-crime. Chabinsky believes that some progress is being made in this area - he averred that although many cyber-criminals believe that they'll never be caught and convicted, "increasingly, they are wrong".

The FBI isn't the only US agency actively pursuing cyber-security. As InformationWeek pointed out on Monday, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is teaming up with the National Security Agency (NSA) to test the latest iteration of the government's "Einstein" intrusion-detection system (IDS).

The new system, Einstein 3 (pdf), will ratchet-up the previous IDS efforts, using NSA-developed and commercial technology to add intrusion-protection system (IPS) capabilities. As part of Einstein 3, real-time full-packet inspection and what the agencies call "threat-based decision-making" will monitor and protect traffic moving in and out of civilian executive-branch agency networks.

The cyber-threats to be detected and prevented include, according to the DHS, phishing, IP spoofing, botnets, denials of service, distributed denials of service, man-in-the-middle attacks, and "the insertion of other types of malware".

As the Wall Street Journal noted when details of Einstein 3 testing were released earlier this month, the IDS and IPS powers of the effort understandably give rise to privacy concerns - especially in light of the hot water that the previous US administration found itself in when details of its secret snooping came to light.

As the WSJ reported, when the Obama administration's cyber-security chief Howard Schmidt spoke to the RSA conference a few weeks back he said that allaying privacy concerns was one of his top priorities: "We're really paying attention, and we get it," he told that gathering.

Details of the efforts being made to ensure privacy of the Average American Joe can be found in the DHS's 19-page Privacy Impact Assessment (pdf) for the Einstein 3 testing, which includes assurances that "No agency traffic is collected or retained ... unless it is associated with a cyber threat. Other agency traffic is not stored."

Unfortunately, detailed planning, open assessments and good intentions will only get the FBI, DHS and NSA so far - there's also that little detail called execution. And as the recent delay in the FBI's computer upgrade makes clears, the ability of the federal government to execute its plans in a timely fashion is at best questionable. ®

Bootnote

If you're an IT type who has been made redundant during the economic meltdown, the FBI's Chabinsky wants to talk with you. He told the FOSE crowd that the FBI is looking for agents who can "talk the talk" to join the cyber-wars against cyber-baddies.

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