FEATURES & COMMENTARY
Baltimore, MA — The head of the super-secret U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) said that cyberspace had become as important a potential battlefield as any other and held out the prospect of attacking there as well as defending.
“Information is now a place,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden told a major computer security conference here. “It is a place where we must ensure American security as surely as … and, sea, air and space.”
He cited moves to define the “legal structure into which we must fit” before offensive “information operations” – cyberattacks – were officially added to the arsenal that U.S. commanders can use against a foe. The NSA is the Defense Department arm that intercepts communications worldwide.
The world of information “has taken on a dimension within which we will conduct operations to ensure American security,” Hayden said, adding that the NSA had not been authorized to do “that attack thing,” or go on the offensive in cyberspace.
“But as the United States government begins to think about what it should or wants to do when it is under attack, it raises a really interesting question that we all have to work through in the context of our overall democracy,” he said.
A year ago Army Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, disclosed that the United States tried to mount electronic attacks on Serbian computer networks during the NATO air campaign over the province of Kosovo.
“We only used our capability to a very limited degree,” Shelton told reporters at the time.
Hayden said a key challenge to the NSA today was to protect U.S. telecommunications in a world where the adversaries might be “cyberterrorists, a malicious hacker or even a non-malicious hacker.”
“All can cause great harm” to the networked systems that tie the industrialized world together, he told the conference co-sponsored by the NSA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an arm of the Commerce Department.
Hayden said the NSA, the Pentagon’s codemaking and codebreaking agency, was committed to developing its partnerships with industry to boost computer network security.
“We’ve done pioneering work to better protect e-commerce” as well as to develop biometrics, ways in which computers authenticate identities from unique traits such as fingerprints, iris scans and voice recognition, he said.
Ultimately the NSA must become the “security statement” of the U.S. telecommunications and computer industries, just as he views the Air Force as the “military statement” of the aviation industry, he said.
“How else does our society develop the tools we need to do what it is that our agency has been charged to do?” he asked. The NSA designs codes to protect the integrity of U.S. information systems and searches for weaknesses in foes’ systems and codes.