That's the curious situation now facing the U.S. government--and by extension, America--which on the one hand finds its networks being attacked more than ever before and, on the other hand, recently claimed credit for launching at a foreign nation some of the most advanced malware attacks in history.
Can this disconnect be resolved? To answer that question, it helps to understand the defensive side of the equation, as the Pentagon reports that it's having a harder time than ever blocking the increasing volume of attacks being launched at U.S. government networks. It's also been sounding the alarm over an increase in attacks against critical infrastructure systems controlled by the private sector.
Accordingly, elements of the Department of Defense (DOD) have been petitioning the Secretary of Defense to allow the military to not just defend its own systems and block malware, as it's currently authorized to do, but also defend critical systems running outside government-controlled networks, the Washington Post recently reported. Currently, the DOD isn't allowed to touch civilian networks in any way, although it does share threat intelligence with some defense contractors and service providers.
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Gen. Keith Alexander, who's both director of the NSA as well as Cyber Command--which protects DOD networks and oversees federal cyber warfare activities--argued at a recent conference that the government's cyber specialists "need standing rules of engagement and execute orders that allow the government to do defense that is reasonable and proportionate." In the event of a national-level attack, the DOD wants to be able to respond quickly, effectively, and legally.
The Pentagon also wants approval to use more aggressive defenses, such as sinkholing, which involves forcibly rerouting a botnet's command-and-control servers so that malicious code on infected PCs can't be used to launch attacks. Sinkholing is in widespread use by information security researchers, sometimes working in conjunction with technology vendors, including Microsoft.
But as the DOD seeks approval to get more defensive, the White House earlier this year revealed that the "Olympic Games" program begun by President George W. Bush, and continued at his urging by President Obama, launched Stuxnet, Flame, Duqu, Gauss, and no doubt other malware meant to disable parts foreign countries' critical infrastructure, or eavesdrop on people and information of interest.
That program was detailed by David E. Sanger in his recently published Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power. In light of that program, "the United States lost a bit of the moral high ground when it comes to warning the world of the danger of cyberattacks," writes Sanger, in a bit of understatement. Furthermore, the generals sounding alarms over the rise of advanced persistent threats being launched en masse against Pentagon systems by China and other countries work for the same government that's been launching its own malware attacks against other countries.