Quick Study

By Brian Robinson

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NSA stakes another claim to cybersecurity leadership

Much is being made of the recent Wall Street Journal story about the National Security Agency’s “Perfect Citizen” program, which reportedly is aimed at putting sensors into networks at such places as defense contractors, power plants and big Internet companies in order to better sniff out cyberattacks before they can wreak major damage.

Most of the commentary so far has been about the potential Big Brother aspects of this, with the government spying on private industry and so on. However, it should come as no surprise to people who have been following the progress of the government’s Einstein 3 system, since the clear implication is to get that also into the critical public infrastructure as well as government networks.

But there are other interesting nuggets in these reports, such as the program being voluntary but that NSA is dangling incentives to companies such as additional government contracts if they comply. There’s also an implicit threat there, since if companies already have government contracts, then non-compliance could damage their future dealings with government.

The NSA must follow the federal acquisition regulations, but it doesn’t usually advertise its procurements and it makes liberal use of the national security exemption in awarding contracts. It would be naive to think that agencies and the government overall don’t use procurement as a giddy-up to companies to get them to do certain things, but this seems to steer close to outright bribery.

Some commentators wonder why the NSA is going so public with this story. But while there’s a lack of official statements, all of the inside sources quoted suggests some kind of informal leak.

Perhaps we should look no further than that ancient government practice of turf war. Cyber security has quickly gone from being a blip on the policy radar to a major concern, at least the high levels of government. The Obama Administration has been hot for it from the get-go, and now Congress is hammering away at legislation.

Which means cybersecurity is probably the biggest item in terms of influence and potential budget gains in Washington, D.C. right now. The Homeland Security Department is being pushed as a leader on all of this, but the NSA has made it plain through various means that it thinks it should be fronting this. Its involvement has been a big reason for previous government cyber czars quitting their jobs.

Perfect Citizen should be seen as another shout-out from the NSA in its claim to be the agency that’s on top of cybersecurity.

Posted by Brian Robinson on Jul 08, 2010 at 7:27 PM

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