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Experts: Assume Foreign Spies Are Already Planted Throughout Military Computer Networks


"...with good reason they worry more about their privacy and the integrity of their data."

This post originally appeared on Business Insider by Eloise Lee. 

The attack on American military computer networks has been so thorough, and so successful, security experts now say the U.S. should quit trying to stop it, and assume spies are already inside.

Security experts testifying before the Senate Armed Services said last week that it's time the U.S. stopped building up its computer defense, and start retaliating against nations accessing U.S. networks.

The attacks on governmental and private defense networks has been non-stop for years, and last year the Pentagon declared it now regards cyberspace as a military-operable domain.

The 2011 U.S. strategy for operating in cyberspace says that cyberspace is no different than land, sea, air, and space. This means the military is silently building a "cyberforce" to safeguard America's data.

The Defense Department’s 2013 Information Technology budget request of $37 billion includes $3.4 billion for defensive cybersecurity efforts.

The U.S. is crafting new military-like tactics and procedures.

"We are developing doctrine for a pro-active, agile cyber force that can 'maneuver' in cyberspace at the speed of the internet," said General Keith Alexander, the commander of U.S. Cyber Command to the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities last week.

Although the networks and systems that make up the cyber domain, such as those of the Internet, are man-made and often privately-owned primarily for civilian use, cyberspace is a powerful gateway. And it can be threatened or breached — easily.

Cyber experts told the House Armed Services Subcommittee that the U.S. should acknowledge that is impossible to keep spies out of its networks, reported the BBC. Instead of focusing on keeping hackers out, the Defense Department should assume that foreign spies have already made their way in.

The DoD has said that their networks are probed millions of times everyday and successful breaches have led to the loss of thousands of files from U.S. networks and those of its allies and industry partners. Last March, a defense company's network was hacked and 24,000 files containing Pentagon data were stolen in a single intrusion.

"Keystrokes originating in one country can impact the other side of the globe in the blink of an eye.  In the 21st Century, bits and bytes can be as threatening as bullets and bombs," reiterated William Lynn, former Deputy Secretary of Defense, after the intrusion during a speech last July at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

During the recent subcommittee hearing, General Alexander said the Intelligence Community’s world-wide threat brief to Congress in January raised cyber threats to just behind terrorism and proliferation among the biggest challenges facing the U.S. And It hits home:

"Americans have digitized and networked more of their businesses, activities, and their personal lives, and with good reason they worry more about their privacy and the integrity of their data."

"So has our military," he added.

For one thing, social media offers adversaries potential to tap into a wealth of information. This month, the military warned service members and their families about geo-tagging, the GPS-enabled tool on FacebookTwitter, smartphones and mobile apps, that can pinpoint a user's location when photos or messages are posted online.

To civilians, geo-tagging and "checking-in" is a harmless feature of connectivity. To someone with the wrong motivation, it becomes a weapon.

In 2007, terrorists in Iraq downloaded pictures from Facebook of a new fleet of AH-64 Apache helicopters arriving at a base.

Some deployed soldiers had uploaded the photos and, unbeknownst to them, the exact coordinates of the helicopters were embedded into the images' metadata.

The terrorists launched a precise mortar attack and destroyed four of the new Apaches in the military compound.

In another case of cyberspace manipulation, two weeks ago a fake Facebook account for NATO's most senior commander, American Admiral James Stavridis, was set up by spies reportedly from China. According to Jason Lewis reporting for the Telegraph, a series of Stravridis' colleagues fell for the deception and accepted Facebook friend requests, opening up their personal profiles to the spies and revealing private email addresses, phone numbers, and pictures.

It's unlikely critical military intelligence was made available, but the incident is is just plain embarrassing.

DoD networks, both unclassified and secret, connect 7 million devices across the department; roughly 3.7 million people have active cyber identity credentials issued by the DoD. Half a million personnel use the Department's secret network, which allows anonymous access. And there are 25,000 unclassified servers visible to the Internet with "countless" people exchanging information with personnel daily,confirmed Teresa Takai, the Defense Department's Chief Information Officer, to the House Armed Services Subcommittee.

Takai said that they're trying to drive out anonymity from the Department's secret networks by requiring visible user credentials. Based on the fallout of WikiLeaks, this security and accountability measure is overdue.

Dr. Kaigham Gabriel, acting director of DARPA, the agency behind some of the Defense Department's cyber warfare technology, pointed to the reality that the U.S. cannot be over-confident that it dominates this domain:

"The United States continues to spend on cybersecurity with limited increase in security: The Federal Government expended billions of dollars in 2010, but the number of malicious cyber intrusions has increased." There is still much to do, he said.

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