Army General Paul Nakasone, director of the National Security Agency, says the United States has a “ blind spot ” when it comes to foreign intelligence services that effectively conduct cyber espionage from the United States. He testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 25. Anna Moneymaker / New York Times via AP .
rock legend Anna Moneymaker / New York Times via AP
Anna Moneymaker / New York Times via AP
The National Security Agency considers itself the world’s most formidable cyberpower, with an army of computer warriors constantly scouring the wired world. Yet by law, the NSA collects intelligence abroad, not in the United States
American rivals like Russia are aware of this blind spot and know how to exploit it, as NSA Director Army General Paul Nakasone recently explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“We can see what’s going on outside the United States, but when it happens in the United States, our opponents are going really fast,” Nakasone said on March 25. “They understand the laws and policies that we have in our country, and so they use our own infrastructure, our own Internet service providers, to create these intrusions.”
In a major breach last year, hackers widely believed to be part of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, SVR, quietly placed malware on a software update produced by Texas-based company Solar Winds.
No one had reason to be suspicious or the legal authority to monitor, as this software update was sent electronically by SolarWinds to 18,000 organizations, including nine US government agencies.
“It’s not the fact that we can’t connect the dots. We can’t see all of the dots,” Nakasone said.
Protection of private life
The 4th Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits the government from monitoring its country unless a crime is suspected.
But in the digital age, these privacy protections in the United States have unintended consequences. They help hide foreign intelligence agencies that may disguise their tracks and make it appear as if they are operating from inside the United States.
This is fueling a debate about how the U.S. government and private tech companies can both protect computer networks and protect civil liberties.
None of the leading figures in this debate are suggesting that privacy laws protecting Americans should be repealed. But they say the United States must find a better way to guard against foreign spy agencies.
SolarWinds was just one of many US companies that hackers relied on to cover their tracks, said Glenn Gerstell, who was the NSA’s general counsel until his resignation last year.
“The Russians have leased computer server capacity from a network hosting company, GoDaddy,” Gerstell said. “Just as I can buy a website on GoDaddy, so can the Russians.”
Of course, the hackers used multiple layers of deception to hide their identity and make it look like they were American, Gerstell said. This meant that even if US cybersecurity teams suspected something was wrong, the breadcrumbs weren’t making it back to Russia.
“Someone looking at their computer in the US, to see if they were doing something funny, would see their computer’s communications to another computer in the US on GoDaddy, which doesn’t look particularly suspect, ”he said.
Hackers searched computer networks owned by US government agencies and dozens of private companies starting in March 2020. They were not detected until December 2020 by another US company affected in the attack on California cybersecurity company FireEye.
FireEye is one of the country’s leading cybersecurity companies. It’s the company the US government and big business call when they fear they’ve been hacked.
Kevin Mandia, CEO of FireEye, in a company office in Reston, Virginia. Last December, the cybersecurity firm discovered the SolarWinds hack, which hit 18,000 organizations, including nine US government agencies. Nathan Ellgren / AP .
rocker legend Nathan Ellgren / AP
Nathan Ellgren / AP
FireEye said it discovered the breach only because a new employee on its security team was being particularly vigilant. She noticed that someone using the credentials of a FireEye vendor was logging in with a new cell phone. When she checked with the seller, who said the phone didn’t belong to her. It turned out that the phone belonged to a cyber intruder.
“We recognized right away that FireEye was one of the many casualties,” company CEO Kevin Mandia said at a recent conference hosted by The Cipher Brief.
Mandia, a former Air Force IT security official, says the US government needs a central location where the government and the private sector can deal with suspected hacks in real time.
“Regardless of which agency is responsible for doing it, you will have to have a clearinghouse, it’s a one-stop shop. You just have to. but it has to be a private and public sector affair, “he said.
The current system is far too slow and cumbersome, according to Mandia and others.
If the NSA detects unusual computer traffic coming from abroad, it is not allowed to track it inside the United States. The agency can notify the FBI, who can then seek court clearance and consult with the US company that may be the target. While all of this is happening, probably over the course of the days, maybe a skilled hacker has come and gone.
If a private U.S. company detects an intrusion, as happened with FireEye in December, it is not legally obligated to share that information with the government or anyone else. Many companies are reluctant to report a hack, fearing that disclosure could harm their reputation and the price of their actions.
FireEye’s willingness to publicly acknowledge that he was raped and to work with the government and other private companies has been praised for helping to limit the damage.
Neither the government nor the targeted companies disclosed the extent of the damage.
Meanwhile, Gerstell, the former NSA general counsel, is working on his own proposal.
“What we can do is create a kind of fusion center,” he said. “The FBI, together with the NSA and Homeland Security CISA, can all pool their resources, their computers and work together in real time with the private sector.”
CISA, the Agency for Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security, was just created in 2018 to address national cybersecurity issues. The agency played a leading role in saving the US election last year. But as a relatively new and small agency with limited authority, cybersecurity experts say CISA is not yet equipped to play the necessary role.
However, Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, is skeptical when he hears of plans to expand the reach of government cybersecurity.
“The impression the American people might have is that hackers are such formidable adversaries that the United States government or our biggest tech companies could not have done anything to protect themselves,” Wyden said at a recent hearing of the SolarWinds Hacking Senate Intelligence Committee.
“My opinion is that this message leads to laws violating privacy and billions of additional public funds for cybersecurity,” he added. “There are concrete ways for the government to improve its ability to identify hackers without resorting to warrantless surveillance of the domestic Internet.”
The White House said President Biden will respond to the SolarWinds hack soon, but did not provide details.
The Biden administration also said it is working on ways for the government and the tech industry to better share critical information. But the administration stresses that it is not currently seeking increased legal authority for national digital surveillance.
Greg Myre is the national security correspondent for NPR. Follow him @ gregmyre1.
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