Joel Brenner is the author of America the Vulnerable: Inside the New Threat Matrix of Digital Espionage, Crime and Warfare. He’s also one of the main speakers at The Open Group Conferencein Washington, D.C., which begins July 16.
Joel is a former senior counsel at the National Security Agency (NSA), where he advised on legal and policy issues relating to network security. Brenner currently practices law in Washington at Cooley, specializing in cybersecurity.
Previously, he served as the National Counterintelligence Executive in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and as the NSA’s Inspector General. He is a graduate of University of Wisconsin – Madison, the London School of Economics and Harvard Law School. The discussion is moderated by Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions.
Listen to the podcast (27:50 minutes).
Here are some excerpts:
Dana Gardner: Your book came out last September and it affirmed this notion that the United States, or at least open Western cultures and societies, are particularly vulnerable to being infiltrated, if you will, from cybercrime, espionage and dirty corporate tricks.
Why are we particularly vulnerable, when we should be most adept at using cyber activities to our advantage?
Joel Brenner: Let’s make a distinction here between the political-military espionage that’s gone on since pre-biblical times and the economic espionage that’s going on now and, in many cases, has nothing at all to do with military, defense or political issues.
The other stuff has been going on forever, but what we’ve seen in the last 15 or so years is a relentless espionage attack on private companies for reasons having nothing to do with political-military affairs or defense.
So the countries that are adept at cyber, but whose economies are relatively undeveloped compared to ours, are at a big advantage, because they’re not very lucrative targets for this kind of thing, and we are. Russia, for example, is paradoxical. While it has one of the most educated populations in the world and is deeply cultured, it has never been able to produce a commercially viable computer chip.
We’re not going to Russia to steal advanced technology. We’re not going to China to steal advanced technology. They’re good at engineering and they’re good at production, but so far, they have not been good at making themselves into an entrepreneurial culture.
That’s one just very cynical reason why we don’t do economic espionage against the people who are mainly attacking us, which are China, Russia and Iran. I say “attack” in the espionage sense.
The other reason is that you’re stealing intellectual property when you’re doing economic espionage. It’s a bedrock proposition of American economics and political strategy around the world to defend the legal regime that protects intellectual property. So we don’t do that kind of espionage. Political-military stuff we’re real good at.
Gardner: Wouldn’t our defense rise to the occasion? Why hasn’t it?
Brenner: The answer has a lot to do with the nature of the Internet and its history. The Internet, as some of your listeners will know, was developed starting in the late ’60s by the predecessor of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a brilliant operation which produced a lot of cool science over the years.
It was developed for a very limited purpose, to allow the collaboration of geographically dispersed scientists who worked under contract in various universities with the Defense Department’s own scientists. It was bringing dispersed brainpower to bear.
It was a brilliant idea, and the people who invented this, if you talk to them today, lament the fact that they didn’t build a security layer into it. They thought about it. But it wasn’t going to be used for anything else but this limited purpose in a trusted environment, so why go to the expense and aggravation of building a lot of security into it?
Until 1992, it was against the law to use the Internet for commercial purposes. Dana, this is just amazing to realize. That’s 20 years ago, a twinkling of an eye in the history of a country’s commerce. That means that 20 years ago, nobody was doing anything commercial on the Internet. Ten years ago, what were you doing on the Internet, Dana? Buying a book for the first time or something like that? That’s what I was doing, and a newspaper.
In the intervening decade, we’ve turned this sort of Swiss cheese, cool network, which has brought us dramatic productivity and all and pleasure into the backbone of virtually everything we do.
International finance, personal finance, command and control of military, manufacturing controls, the controls in our critical infrastructure, all of our communications, virtually all of our activities are either on the Internet or exposed to the Internet. And it’s the same Internet that was Swiss cheese 20 years ago and it’s Swiss cheese now. It’s easy to spoof identities on it.
So this gives a natural and profound advantage to attack on this network over defense. That’s why we’re in the predicament we’re in.
Gardner: Let’s also look at this notion of supply chain, because corporations aren’t just islands unto themselves. A business is really a compendium of other businesses, products, services, best practices, methodologies and intellectual property that come together to create a value add of some kind. It’s not just attacking the end point, where that value is extended into the market. It’s perhaps attacking anywhere along that value chain.
What are the implications for this notion of the ecosystem vulnerability versus the enterprise vulnerability?
Brenner: Well, the supply chain problem really is rather daunting for many businesses, because supply chains are global now, and it means that the elements of finished products have a tremendous numbers of elements. For example, this software, where was it written? Maybe it was written in Russia — or maybe somewhere in Ohio or in Nevada, but by whom? We don’t know.
There are two fundamental different issues for supply chain, depending on the company. One is counterfeiting. That’s a bad problem. Somebody is trying to substitute shoddy goods under your name or the name of somebody that you thought you could trust. That degrades performance and presents real serious liability problems as a result.
The other problem is the intentional hooking, or compromising, of software or chips to do things that they’re not meant to do, such as allow backdoors and so on in systems, so that they can be attacked later. That’s a big problem for military and for the intelligence services all around the world.
The reason we have the problem is that nobody knows how to vet a computer chip or software to see that it won’t do these squirrelly things. We can test that stuff to make sure it will do what it’s supposed to do, but nobody knows how to test the computer chip or 2 million lines of software reliably to be sure that it won’t also do certain things we don’t want it to do.
You can put it in a sandbox or a virtual environment and you can test it for a lot of things, but you can’t test it for everything. It’s just impossible. In hardware and software, it is the strategic supply chain problem now. That’s why we have it.
If you have a worldwide supply chain, you have to have a worldwide supply chain management system. This is hard and it means getting very specific. It includes not only managing a production process, but also the shipment process. A lot of squirrelly things happen on loading docks, and you have to have a way not to bring perfect security to that — that’s impossible — but to make it really harder to attack your supply chain.
Gardner: So many organizations today, given the economy and the lagging growth, have looked to lowest-cost procedures, processes, suppliers, materials, and aren’t factoring in the risk and the associated cost around these security issues. Do people need to reevaluate cost in the supply chain by factoring in what the true risks are that we’re discussing?
Brenner: Yes, but of course, when the CEO and the CFO get together and start to figure this stuff out, they look at the return on investment (ROI) of additional security. It’s very hard to be quantitatively persuasive about that. That’s one reason why you may see some kinds of production coming back into the United States. How one evaluates that risk depends on the business you’re in and how much risk you can tolerate.
This is a problem not just for really sensitive hardware and software, special kinds of operations, or sensitive activities, but also for garden-variety things.
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