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DHS cyber chief: Industrial system threats are growing

The government is witnessing an uptick in assaults on the computers that control industrial operations such as power transmission and transportation, the top Homeland Security Department cybersecurity official said Monday.

Mark Weatherford, the first-ever deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity at DHS' National Protection and Programs Directorate, knows a lot about the topic and how government shares cyber intelligence with industry operators. Before joining DHS in fall 2011, he was the chief security officer at the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a standards-making group of power grid operators.

“We pay particular attention to industrial control systems,” Weatherford said. “We’re seeing a troubling increase in the threats and the vulnerabilities associated with those.” Much of the technical infrastructure running the machines was installed between 30 and 50 years ago, and security flaws are introduced when digital enhancements are layered on top, he said. “But we are making progress on that, I think,” Weatherford added.

One way the government and private sector are buttressing protections is through a little-known facility called the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, or NCCIC (pronounced N-kick). It is a “24-by-7-by 365 operations center,” Weatherford said. “The collaboration, sharing of incident, of vulnerability information is truly magic.” He conjured an image of DHS Secret Service cybercrime, electricity sector and financial sector personnel “all sitting next to each other and working [together]on a daily basis.”

Weatherford was speaking at the University of Rhode Island, which on April 27 received a National Centers of Academic Excellence for Information Assurance Education designation by DHS and the Pentagon’s National Security Agency. He stressed the importance of encouraging the next generation to engage in the field of cyberspace. “As I go around, a lot of people have never thought of it as a career,” he said.

Beyond the flaws menacing critical infrastructure, Weatherford noted other dangers in the networking landscape that are growing. “Go out and do a Google search on hacking tools and you’ll get a gazillion hits in less than a second,” he noted.

In April, the Utah state government discovered that hackers stole health care claims and eligibility information that may have included diagnosis codes, billing codes and other sensitive identifying information. The Social Security numbers of about 280,000 people, including those of children, were exposed, state officials said. “What worries me about this kind of attack is what comes next,” Weatherford said. “People start finding out that they’ve bought cars or have had medical procedures that never really happened, because their identities were stolen.”

He alluded to a battle in Congress over reforming computer security laws. “It’s been a pretty eye-opening experience,” Weatherford said. “There are a number of people in the legislature who really do get this and understand the criticality of what we’re doing.” The Obama administration in May 2011 proposed legislation to heighten the security of private sector networks. Many of the recommendations are in a large bill pending in the Senate, but the House and some Republican senators are backing rival measures that give less credence to regulation and DHS’ role as cybersecurity overseer.

“Our nation cannot improve its ability to defend against cyber threats unless certain laws are updated,” he said. The main upgrades needed, according to Weatherford, are clarifying Homeland Security’s function in civilian cybersecurity, eliminating legal barriers to information sharing in the private sector, and ensuring critical infrastructure systems institute baseline security practices.

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