It seems hardly a day goes by in Washington without a conference or seminar on the subject of cybersecurity and what government is doing about it. Likewise, there’s a seemingly endless stream of news headlines, which, taken together, paint a rather ominous picture.
In the space of a couple of weeks in September, Nextgov, the technology-focused online publication of Government Executive, ran the following stories online about federal efforts in the cyber arena:
■ Get Ready for Computers
Worldwide to Automatically
Smother Cyber Strikes
■ Pact Sends Highly Sensitive Spy Agency Data to the Cloud
■ ‘Bring Your Own Device’ Security
Monitoring Is Not the Norm
■ NATO Seeks Technology to Stem
Leaks From Secret Afghanistan
■ Software Alert Claiming to Be
From Cyber Command Aims to
Besides being eye-opening and portentous, here’s what else those stories had in common: They all were written by Aliya Sternstein, who covers cyber issues day in and day out for Nextgov. In this edition of the magazine, we decided to give Aliya some room to explore in a broader way the key cyber issues that federal agencies face. She came up with the two pieces that frame the heart of the issue.
In the first story, Aliya focuses on criminal hackers—the kind of people who are going way beyond mischief to attack networks on a large scale. Traditionally, FBI officials have been tight-lipped about how they deal with such cases, both because they always have to balance the public’s right to know with the interests of the justice system and because of the bureau’s own need to protect its sources of vital information about wrongdoing.
Now, though, the cyber threat is just too big to take that approach. So the FBI is coming out of the shadows and disclosing details about its investigations even before guilty verdicts have been reached. The bureau insists it has no grand plan to be more public in its approach, and notes that one reason it’s issuing more press releases about cyber cases is simply because there are more of them.
Of course, deep down, the FBI’s leaders surely wish they didn’t have to go public with details of their investigations at all—not necessarily because they want to keep them secret, but because they’d rather the crimes didn’t occur in the first place.
Working toward achieving that goal is the subject of Aliya’s second story on the effort to stop cybercriminals before they start. This is becoming an acute issue for agencies and the organizations supporting them that are in the business of training young cyberwarriors in techniques that could be used for good and for ill.
Many of the organized cyber efforts, such as the U.S. Cyber Challenge, enlist students to find flaws and vulnerabilities in systems, but they also conduct ethical discussions that show the legal ramifications of illicit cyber activity and encourage participants to use their talents to help secure federal systems. It’s a tricky process, because in many cases the best defenders of networks are those who know how to play offense pretty well, too.
The stories that are the centerpiece of this issue provide a window into government’s increasingly critical efforts to at least keep pace with cyberattackers. But they are far from the last word on the cyber threat—which is why you can continue to read more about how federal agencies are handling it at Nextgov every day.