Threats lurk among Pentagon’s sprawling computer networks

Defense Department file photo

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The Pentagon’s thousands of networks are indefensible against cyberattacks but no one there can keep track of all the vulnerabilities. The military aims to change that within five years.

To say the Defense Department’s information technology departments are disjointed is an understatement. According to senior Pentagon officials, duplicative networks, thousands of email servers and hundreds of data centers prevent warfighters from securely accessing information anywhere and anytime.

To heighten security and lower costs, Defense is attempting to build a “joint information environment” that would simplify military computing, officials on Tuesday told military personnel at a talk sponsored by Nextgov’s parent company Government Executive Media Group. The goal by 2017 is to consolidate information technology contracts across services, move off desktops to online services accessible from any device and create what Cyber Command calls a “cyber operational picture.”

The existing intrusion prevention system “is not providing that real-time information that we need,” Rear Adm. Marshall B. Lytle III, director of Command, Control, Communications and Computer (C4) Systems and Cyber Command chief information officer, said during an interview after the event. A comprehensive snapshot of anomalous network activities and instant Defensewide access to threat information from softer targets, such as utilities, could reveal a potential coordinated attack, he said.

Right now, the networkwide threat detector, called the Host-Based Security System, is a starting point for reaching this wide-angle view, Lytle said. The system is deployed throughout the military services and agencies but is not fully operational “with all the modules enabled,” he said. The statistics collected from many of the Defense organizations must be manually combined, Lytle added.

On Monday, Gen. Keith Alexander, head of Cyber Command, explained the difficulty of spotting cyberassaults outside the dot-mil domain.

“How do you see cyberspace?” he asked during a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “Draw me a picture of cyberspace.”

Sharing information between the public and private sectors could help map out virtual strikes, but that concept raises concerns about militarizing the Internet. “How do we share information between the government and industry and how do we do that in such a way that the American people know we’re defending their civil liberties and privacy?” Alexander questioned, describing the problem cyberwarriors face.

Ideally, he would like Congress to pass a bill that would allow a private company to quickly tell the Pentagon the type of malicious software detected in an email, the time the message was received and perhaps the network location, or IP address, of the targeted device.

“If the critical infrastructure community is being attacked, we need somebody to tell us at network speed,” Alexander said. “It doesn’t require the government to read their email.”

“If it’s an attack on the country, you don’t want to say, ‘Oops, there went the power sector, there went the financial sector,’” he added. “The reality is it’s going to take real-time information and sharing.”