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Pentagon develops 'Plan X' for next-gen online combat

'Battle units' to defend global networks

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The Pentagon is asking for submissions for its next generation of online defenses with a workshop organized by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop the tools to protect US networks.

The Foundational Cyberwarfare (Plan X) Proposers’ Day Workshop will be held on September 27 at DARPA's conference center in Arlington, Virginia. There the Plan X team will explain the goals of the project, demonstrate some of the tools and concepts needed, and solicit private sector support.

Attendance for some sessions is strictly limited to those with a "Secret" clearance level and above. Members of the press or public are expressly forbidden to take part.

DARPA is seeking bidders to develop defensive online capabilities and it isn’t looking for offensive input, it states, which is in line with NATO policy. Plan X calls for "revolutionary technologies for understanding, planning, and managing cyberwarfare in real-time, large-scale, and dynamic network environments."

Topping the list of tools wanted are automated network monitoring and reconnaissance systems to detect attacks and visualize the network's structure. The next step is to augment these with a series of semi-automated mission plans to counter popular attack vectors using a "human-on-the-loop interface, similar to the auto-pilot function in modern aircraft."

As you'd expect, there's a distinctly military mindset to the proposed plan. Along with automated network reconnaissance tools and tactical planning tools, DARPA is looking for the development of "battle units" that can act as hardened monitoring and communications monitoring platforms and provide "weapon deployment."

Plan X is also looking for a real BOFH team to run the new platform, although presumably you'd have to have no skeletons in your server room, which rules out many. Successful contractors will be based in the DARPA cyberwar laboratory, although use of outside facilities is allowed under some circumstances.

At this year's Black Hat USA, online attacks by foreign intelligence agencies were rated the biggest online threat by the former computer security head of the FBI – although, as was repeatedly pointed out by speakers, that war may already have been lost. As conference founder, ICANN CSO, and advisor to the Department of Homeland Security Jeff Moss noted, the US is being comprehensively pwned.

"Certain other nations have actual industrial policy which says we'll go out and mine secrets of our competitors and we'll share that information," he said last month. "We don’t do that in the US, we're never done that. So we’re out there with one arm behind our back."

DARPA did stress that Plan X is "explicitly not funding research and development efforts in vulnerability analysis or cyberweapon generation," and this may be so – after all, that may be handled by another department. But talk of weapon-deploying battle units, coupled with recent cloud security efforts, does make one wonder how geared up Uncle Sam is getting. ®

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