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Congress warned that military systems may already be pwned

Radical rethink of computer security needed

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Security experts testifying at hearings held by the US Senate Armed Services Committee on cybersecurity have warned that maintaining a perimeter to keep out spies is unsupportable, and that the US should assume that its networks have already been fully penetrated.

"We've got the wrong mental model here," said Dr. James Peery, director of the Information Systems Analysis Center at Sandia National Laboratories. "I don't think that we would think that we could keep spies out of our country. We've got this model for cyber that says, 'We're going to develop a system where we're not attacked.' I think we have to go to a model where we assume that the adversary is in our networks. It's on our machines, and we've got to operate anyway."

The committee heard that the US Department of Defense (DoD) operates over 15,000 networks with around seven million computing devices, and protecting them against hacking was virtually impossible, particularly in light of the increasing complexity of both the devices and the software that runs on them.

The commercial software industry has, of course, realized that the old idea of a perimeter defense is increasingly useless, and groups such as the Jericho Forum have been working on systems to protect data, rather than network boundaries for many years. Such principles might be antithetical to the military mind, but Dr. Kaigham Gabriel, current head of the DARPA, said that the cost of perimeter control would be huge and most likely ineffective anyway.

"Modern operations will demand the effective use of cyber, kinetic, and combined cyber and kinetic means," he suggested. "The shelf-life of cyber tools and capabilities is short – sometimes measured in days. To a greater degree than in other areas of Defense, cybersecurity solutions require that DoD develops the ability to build quickly, at scale, and over a broad range of capabilities."

Cyber arms races are all well and good, but the head of research at the National Security Agency (NSA) Dr. Michael Wertheimer warned that the US is also facing an increasing intelligence gap, as not enough citizens have the skills of online defense. In 2010 there were just 726 computer science PhDs awarded to US citizens, and only 64 of them signed up for government service.

The open session of the committee hearings can be viewed here.

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