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After Monumental Breach, Banks and Even Farmers Are Buying NSA-Fueled Surveillance Gear

Maksim Kabakou/Shutterstock.com

Agriculture companies are now buying cyber-surveillance gear fueled by National Security Agency intelligence, according to a telecommunications company authorized to sell the technology to government and industry.

It is the same apparatus that discovered the monumental hack now known to have netted personal information on 21.5 million background check applicants and family members.

Government-aided network monitoring might have been hard to imagine just a couple of months ago, when a court deemed NSA’s bulk call record sweeps illegal.

But ever since the far-reaching data breaches were revealed in June, industry has been clamoring for a commercial version of the government’s intrusion detection system, some Internet service providers say.

Dubbed EINSTEIN, the technology is informed by NSA intelligence on cyberthreats, as well as other classified and unclassified sources.

It can only detect known malicious operations, so EINSTEIN alone would not have prevented the Office of Management Personnel intrusions, according to U.S. officials. But it is able to flag threats only the government knows about once they pop up on other systems, like the now-identified OPM malware and other hallmarks of spyware that the public is not aware of yet.

Recently, the government began allowing EINSTEIN providers AT&T, CenturyLink and Verizon to sell the Internet technology to any U.S. private firm. 

Federal agencies ultimately benefit from the sale of the blandly named Enhanced Cybersecurity Services, or ECS, some ISPs say. That's because the energy distributors, health care companies, banks and other firms now signing up for the network protection are the backbone of government operations.

More businesses are willing to accept the U.S. government's help, after learning parts of their own workforces have been caught up in cyber espionage campaigns. Recent data breaches at health insurers, including Anthem, have been tied to the Chinese military, as has the OPM attack.

Privacy activists have long distrusted EINSTEIN. The system scans inbound emails from citizens for malicious attachments and links, collecting email and location metadata they argue can be used for targeted domestic surveillance.

In terms of EINSTEIN being abused to look at personal details, service providers say users of the system already have enough trouble analyzing and correlating the flood of Internet data.

"Nobody is reading the emails. You are looking for patterns and other things," one provider said.

All federal agencies are slated to deploy the latest EINSTEIN upgrade "3A" by the end of 2015, Obama administration officials said Thursday, after disclosing the estimated scope of the OPM assaults.

Currently, networks at only 15 agencies are covered by EINSTEIN 3A.

‘Exponential Increase’ In Customers

After the OPM discoveries, there has "been an exponential increase" in companies inking agreements with CenturyLink to roll out the commercial rendition of EINSTEIN, the provider says.

"My team is definitely a lot busier than they have ever been," said Tim Meehan, CenturyLink government senior vice president and general manager, in the firm's Ballston, Virginia, office. He declined to provide specific figures.

With only 50 organizations receiving the protections across all three telecoms in recent months, according to DHS, the number of new participants still is probably significantly lower than the number of people registering for credit monitoring right now.

The firms doing business with CenturyLink range in size from 500 to 1 million employees and mostly are in the health care business, but also include store chains, chemical companies, banks and, yes, growers, the telecom says.

Milkmen with Security Clearances at Military Installations Now at Risk

Consider the farmer selling milk to the Navy at a classified location, who has a delivery person with a security clearance. Now, a seemingly low-value target may feel exposed after the breach of background checks.

"You can see why certain small businesses, if they happen to have federal contracts, connect the dots and start to care" about having government-aided antivirus services, Meehan said.

The commercial EINSTEIN started out as a product strictly for defense contractors, and then was offered to only vital U.S. sectors under a 2013 presidential executive order.

Now, the Department of Homeland Security -- which circulates the threat information -- allows noncritical sectors to buy ECS. The thinking is that, for example, a 20-employee parts supplier for a nuclear energy company might want heightened network protections, service providers say.

About 83 percent of malicious "hits" ECS has recently spotted on customer networks originated from two coordinated attackers, according to a DHS report obtained by Nextgov. The top bad actor alone accounted for 65 percent of the suspicious activity detected.

In May, before the OPM hacks were made public, energy sector users saw 195 percent more hits than average over the prior six months, DHS reported.  

Echoes of the OPM Hack?

It is uncertain whether a high-profile hack top of mind right now will result in a long-term ECS investment, other providers say.

"I definitely am seeing more demand since the breach," Jonathan Nguyen-Duy, a Verizon Global Security Services director said in an interview this week at the ISP's Ashburn, Virginia, campus.

Colleague Michael Denning, Verizon Security Services vice president, said the OPM revelations are still too new to understand the long-term effects on use.

"There is definitely an awareness," Denning said. "Whether or not that translates into spending technology, outsourcing, continuous monitoring, etc." remains to be seen, Denning said.

Also, there are questions about how unique the government's classified indicators are, compared to the signatures of hackers that private cybersecurity firms already are capable of eyeing and sharing, Nguyen-Duy said.

AT&T declined to comment.

A 2013 privacy impact assessment of the ECS program states personal details collected while filtering emails are used to identify threats, not particular people. The service "is not using the email address or IP address," a computer's network location, as a way "to identify a particular individual associated with that email address . . . or even as general information about any specific person," according to the assessment.

Homeland Security provides information to Internet service providers for their customers, not the other way around, according to the department.

"The ECS program is strongly committed to preserving citizens’ right to privacy and the protection of civil liberties and does not involve government monitoring of private networks or communications," DHS spokesman S.Y. Lee told Nextgov. "DHS works with cybersecurity organizations from across the federal government to gain access to a broad range of sensitive and classified cyberthreat information."

(Image via Maksim Kabakou/ Shutterstock.com)

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