DHS runs drill to test readiness for online attack

Observers call exercise an important step, say it was more extensive than past incident-response drills.

The Homeland Security Department on Friday concluded a weeklong exercise aimed at assessing public- and private-sector responses to cyber attacks on the nation's critical infrastructure.

Operation Cyber Storm's mission was to assess interagency coordination, identify policy issues and information-sharing capabilities, and pinpoint the challenges that emergency responders face. The department's cyber-security division spearheaded the exercise, which included 115 federal and state agencies and organizations, the public sector, and foreign governments.

The goal of the exercise is to develop a national response system and implement it across all industry and government sectors, Andy Purdy, the department's cyber czar, said at a press conference. The exercise is required by Congress and a presidential directive on national preparedness. An after-action report will be released this summer.

The scenarios in the test, which included pre-scripted, simulated attacks on energy and transportation infrastructures, aimed to disrupt government operations and impact the public's confidence in the system, Purdy said.

"We are increasingly prepared to communicate and coordinate responses to a cyber attack," Purdy said.

The operation offered no single command center for responses, so the department's role was that of "the conductor of the orchestra," said George Foresman, Homeland Security's undersecretary for preparedness. He said the department is to serve as a "crisis coordination point" to detect attacks, alert stakeholders, coordinate responses and provide technical assistance.

Improving coordination with the private sector was critical to the exercise, Purdy said. An estimated 85 percent of critical infrastructures, includes those in the telecommunications, financial and utility sectors, are in private hands. Computer viruses and Internet attacks result in an estimated $80 billion in losses for U.S. companies and consumers.

Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, said he thought the exercise was a step in the right direction. In observing about 90 minutes of it on Wednesday at the U.S. Secret Service headquarters, Paller said he saw improvement over past incident-response tests because it involved company and agency officials, rather than consultants contracted by the government.

"I looked around and there was the Red Cross security guy, the main technology guy at Wachovia," Paller said. "Last time they did it, neither the people nor the scenarios had enough credibility to matter."

The need for customer confidence often keeps companies from acknowledging cyber attacks, Paller said, but exercises like Operation Cyber Storm let the right people meet and gain confidence in each other.

Paller said the exercise had a right mix of everyday cyber attacks and major attacks of national significance, such as an Internet-based assault on an electrical network.

Other private-sector participants included Computer Associates, Electronic Data Systems, Microsoft, Symantec and VeriSign. The Commerce, Defense, Energy, Justice, Transportation and Treasury departments, as well as the CIA, National Security Agency and officials from Michigan, Montana and New York, also were among the participants.

Chengi Jimmy Kuo, senior fellow at McAfee, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based security company, said the five days he spent in the Secret Service headquarters' basement were educational from a communications standpoint.

"The tests primarily tested who contacted who with what information at what time or whether they contacted anyone at all," Kuo said. "They tested the phone trees. It was good to see people go through all of that."

Bob Dix, executive vice president for public affairs and corporate development at Citadel Security Software, another participant in the exercise, said the drill signified an important first step by the Homeland Security Department on cyber preparedness.

Daniel Pulliam contributed to this article.