Pentagon cedes control of Defense cyber pilot to DHS

The goal of the defense industrial base cybersecurity program is to block intruders from accessing private networks that support U.S. troops.

The Homeland Security Department is taking over a heralded Pentagon project that shared classified intelligence with select military contractors and their communications providers, DHS officials said.

The new arrangement puts DHS, the civilian agency responsible for facilitating the protection of private critical infrastructure, in charge of communicating with private Internet service providers. The Defense Department will continue to be the point of contact for contractors, officials said.

During the summer, National Security Agency employees, the military's code breakers, had been disclosing to contractors and their ISPs the "signatures" -- the unique fingerprints of threats -- for uploading into virus-detection systems. The goal of the so-called DIB Cybersecurity Pilot was to block intruders from accessing the computers and networks that support Pentagon operations.

The Obama administration has opted to temporarily extend what was originally a 90-day initiative, DHS officials said Tuesday.

The officials added that the program remains restricted to the initial participating companies while all parties enhance operations based on lessons gleaned from the trial run. Wide interest from the military industry has sparked talks of expanding the program to all Defense Department companies and, perhaps, nondefense critical sectors, such as the power and banking industries.

Under the extension, data will be exchanged only among communications company and Defense and Homeland Security personnel who have security clearances, according to a Jan. 13 privacy notice.

Companies that choose to share information about incidents are prohibited from providing customer data that identifies individuals, the notice stated. The threat indicators divulged by government officials, however, can contain personal information, such as email addresses or other content in infected messages.

Some security specialists have said, going forward, Defense technicians may be hesitant to share the more sensitive data with Homeland Security -- a department traditionally run by policy experts. New blood at DHS, however, with the arrival of a former energy-sector security chief and a State Department pioneer in threat monitoring, could help build a stronger rapport between the two departments, they added.

"If the technical people only have lawyers to meet with, they don't develop a lot of trust," said Alan Paller, research director at the SANS Institute. "Because the lawyers can't speak the language."

During the next six months, communication between DHS and NSA technical professionals will be critical, he said.

"There is a period of trust building that begins right now," Paller said.

Some lawmakers said statutory changes may be required to safeguard private sector networks. About 85 percent of the critical infrastructure supporting Americans and U.S. troops is commercially operated.

"This format allows DHS to strengthen the information sharing effort and potentially expand it to other areas of critical infrastructure," Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., co-chairman of the congressional cybersecurity caucus, said in a statement. "We need to improve the ability of the government and private sector to communicate about threats, but Congress must pass comprehensive legislation that also requires key industries to meet effective security standards internally."