WASHINGTON – Just how involved should the U.S. military be when it comes to protecting civilian government and private computer networks from cybervillains and terrorists?
That was a key question for panelists – who included the heads of the Pentagon’s shadowy National Security Agency and the American Civil Liberties Union, which has often been at odds with the electronic spying agency – at a discussion Monday at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Another panelist, Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican and co-author of a stalled cybersecurity bill, said the Department of Homeland Security officially has the lead in civilian cyberdefense. But the technical know-how sits mostly with the Department of Defense.
“DHS cannot do it without the help of the NSA, because NSA is always going to be the expert,” she said.
The bill from Collins and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., calls for government agencies to share information about cyberattacks as they occur in order to defeat them before they steal secrets, destroy data or knock out public utilities. But Anthony Romero, ACLU executive director, said that with so much of the technical side of cybersecurity resting with the Pentagon, more sharing of data between agencies might mean the military will handle increasing amounts of data on private citizens with little public oversight.
The ACLU sued the NSA in 2006 to stop what it called illegal electronic spying on Americans as the U.S. government overreached in prosecuting the war on terror. Fear of cyberattack could cause similar overreach, Romero said.
“When you’re talking about something as significant as the personal identifiable information of Americans and how we interact with the world, I worry that if that is in the domain of a military complex, it’s harder to shine the light in those black boxes,” he said.
In response, Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the NSA as well as U.S. Cyber Command, said civilian network protection belongs under the auspices of the civilian DHS. But where the Pentagon’s technical expertise is needed, it will be in conjunction with civilian agencies.
“This is a team, we all have to work together,” he said. “By you knowing that we’re working together and not one of us individually, you know that we’re going to do this right.”