Defense is building a database to analyze all network traffic

Cyber Command aims to develop a detailed view of online threats.

The Defense Department is building a database to cull traffic from networks across government and other sectors, which will participate on a voluntary basis, to develop a fuller view of online threats, a top Defense official said.

U.S. Cyber Command, the Defense Department's new joint-service organization created primarily to protect military information networks, is still defining its role in the governmentwide effort to protect the Internet. Foremost, the organization wants to establish a common operational picture of cyberspace, said Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Robert E. Schmidle Jr., CYBERCOM's deputy commander.

"One of the things that I'm going to try to do is bring these data feeds in from all of the services, the agencies and anybody that comes to participate -- and that will be an ugly challenge," he said Wednesday at a seminar on cybersecurity regulation that the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies hosted.

In exchange for such cooperation, contributors would have access to the common database so that when incidents arise, the government can respond with a holistic approach, Schmidle explained.

Security experts have raised concerns about Defense poking too far into private sector and civilian agency networks. Former President George W. Bush gave the Homeland Security Department primary responsibility for cybersecurity. The military's involvement in commercial and civilian networks has become a hot-button issue in Washington, where lawmakers and senior federal officials continue to debate the best way for Defense to defend cyberspace without violating privacy.

Schmidle said the command supervises the operation of only websites carrying the .mil domain, defends that domain and -- when ordered by civilian authorities -- conducts offensive actions on the Internet. But he acknowledged the lines between defensive and offensive activities blur. "You can't do defensive operations effectively in cyberspace unless you are doing offensive operations -- unless you are out there hunting on networks," Schmidle said.

"In many cases, if you have your own network, you really want to have visibility over your network and somebody else's -- but you're not quite so sure you want to expose everything you do to someone else," he noted. "I think, in Cyber Command, in order for us to do this defense piece the way we need to be able to do it, we have to have visibility into these networks.

"One of the things that keeps me up at night is the nation's critical infrastructure," which Defense works closely with DHS to protect, Schmidle said. Recently, the computer worm Stuxnet emerged as a potential threat to the operating systems that control electric grids, water pipelines and manufacturing plants.

Schmidle said he understands why some Americans might expect Defense to take charge of U.S. cybersecurity: "We've got a lot of the money and a lot of the resources, but that doesn't necessarily make it right."

An audience member said the common database Schmidle described brought to mind the WikiLeaks imbroglio, in which a solider allegedly stole State Department diplomatic cables from an internal, information sharing network so he could leak the documents.

"The Internet was designed to be collaborative -- and yet we find that [the structure enabling collaboration], in terms of trying to defend the Internet, is one of the principle weaknesses," Schmidle responded. He said a solution might be user-defined information sharing, where networks are built in a way that segregates authorized users from unauthorized users.

The issue of insider threats came up several times on Wednesday.

When asked whether a Pearl Harbor-like event might transpire and, if so, whether it would be orchestrated by an American or a foreign entity, Schmidle said, "It certainly is conceivable that there could be an event that would get our attention in cyberspace." He said he was hesitant to predict its source, but "I think that we need to continue to be as sensitive to the potential for internal insider threats as we are upon other things."