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Senate Intel Bill Bars Creation of U.S.-Russia Cyber Working Group

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A major intelligence policy bill would bar President Donald Trump from establishing a cybersecurity working group with Russia and order top administration officials to develop a plan to counter Russian meddling in future U.S. elections.  

The Senate Intelligence Committee approved a draft of the bill in late July but only posted the full text this month.

Trump floated the idea of a U.S.-Russia cyber working group soon after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a G-20 meeting in July. Trump and his spokespeople quickly backed away from the plan but talks about it may be ongoing, according to Russian state media.

U.S. cyber experts uniformly rejected any plan that includes sharing cyber threat information with the Russian government, which U.S. intelligence agencies say launched a multi-front digital campaign to undermine the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

U.S. cyber officials have worked with their Russian counterparts in the past, however, and a working group could be helpful for some things, experts said, such as establishing red lines that could elevate a cyber conflict into a conventional military one.

The Senate version of the Intelligence Authorization Act would bar any funding for such a joint working group.

The bill would also give intelligence agencies and the Homeland Security Department 90 days to develop a “whole-of-government approach” to protect U.S. election systems from Russian cyber meddling.

In support of that effort, the bill would require the Director of National Intelligence to ensure at least two election officials in each state have top-secret security clearances that allow them to receive classified cyber threat information from the federal government.

Russian government-linked hackers reportedly probed election systems in 39 states as part of their campaign to undermine the election, though there’s no evidence they compromised any of those systems or changed any votes.

The bill also requires a separate report within two months detailing Russian election hacking efforts during the 2016 cycle as well as election hacking efforts by any other foreign government.

The House version of the annual intelligence authorization bill requires a similar report on foreign cyber threats targeting U.S. election campaigns. The House Intelligence Committee passed its version of that bill in mid-July and the legislation passed the full chamber later that month.

Balancing Vulnerability Disclosure

The Senate bill requires an annual report from the Director of National Intelligence on the government’s process for deciding whether to retain or disclose newfound digital vulnerabilities in software used by the public, companies or foreign governments.

Intelligence agencies frequently hoard cyber vulnerabilities so they can use them to spy on foreign governments. The same vulnerabilities can also be used by foreign governments and cyber criminals, however, to spy on U.S. citizens and steal information from them.

During the Obama administration, intelligence officials disclosed about 90 percent of newfound cyber vulnerabilities to software makers so they could be patched, officials said. The Trump administration has not said whether that percentage has changed substantially since the new president took office.

The House version of the intelligence bill required a similar report on vulnerability disclosures.  

The Senate bill also requires reports from each intelligence agency about how that agency decides whether to submit a newfound vulnerability for disclosure review. Those reports are not required by the House version of the bill.

All the Bug Bounties

The Homeland Security Department would have six months to create a strategic plan to implement bug bounties at “appropriate agencies and departments,” according to another provision of the Senate bill.

Bug bounties are competitions that offer cash rewards to ethical hackers that discover hackable vulnerabilities in websites and other digital systems. Their goal is to incentivize so-called “white hat hackers” to root out those vulnerabilities before their black-hatted cousins discover and exploit them.

Pilot bug bounty programs have paid out thousands of dollars for newfound vulnerabilities in computer systems  at the Pentagon, the Army and, most recently, at the Air Force.  

The bill does not list specific departments or agencies where bug bounties might be implemented.

Labeling Wikileaks

Another provision of the Senate bill declares that it is the “sense of Congress” that the transparency organization Wikileaks and its leadership “resemble a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors and should be treated as such a service by the United States.”

CIA Director Mike Pompeo used similar terms to describe Wikileaks during an April speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

U.S. intelligence agencies say Wikileaks was a conduit—either knowingly or unknowingly—for Russian intelligence agencies to release damaging information stolen from the Hillary Clinton campaign. Wikileaks leader Julian Assange has denied that claim.

The bill also mandates a pilot program to improve cyber threat information sharing within the energy sector and a report within six months on foreign government attempts to conduct surveillance on U.S. telecommunications networks.

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