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NSA Operating As A Compromised System

December 17, 2010

The National Security Agency (NSA) operates now as if it has already been compromised by cyber-criminals, according to a recent Reuters report.

“There’s no such thing as ‘secure’ any more,” Debora Plunkett of NSA said on Thursday during a time of U.S. anger and embarrassment over disclosure of sensitive diplomatic cables by the web site Wikileaks.

“The most sophisticated adversaries are going to go unnoticed on our networks,” she said.

Plunkett is the head of NSA’s Information Assurance Directorate, which is responsible for protecting national security information and networks from the foxhole to the White House.

“We have to build our systems on the assumption that adversaries will get in,” she told a cyber security forum sponsored by the Atlantic and Government Executive media organizations.

Plunkett said that the U.S. cannot put its trust “in different components of the system that might have already been violated.”

“We have to, again, assume that all the components of our system are not safe, and make sure we’re adjusting accordingly.”

She said there was no such thing as a “static state of security” and the agency must constantly fine-tune its approach to security.

Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn wrote in the September/October issue of the journal Foreign Affairs that over 100 foreign intelligence organizations are trying to break into U.S. networks.  He said that some already have the capacity to disrupt U.S. information infrastructure.

Officials have publicly focused on Army Private Bradley Manning as the source link for Wikileaks coming into possession of 250,000 diplomatic cables.

Plunkett said that NSA believes the problem is a matter of maintaining the availability and assuring the integrity of the systems it guards.

She also said that NSA focuses on standardization and auditing to hunt for any intrusions.  Plunkett referred to the development of sensors for eventual deployment “in appropriate places within our infrastructure” to detect threats and take action against them.

Retired Navy vice admiral Matt McConnell told the forum that he believed no U.S. government network was safe from penetration.

McConnell, director of national intelligence from 2007 to 2009 and now leader of the intelligence business for the Booz Allen Hamilton consultancy, said that a third-party inspection of major computer systems found there was none of consequence “that is not penetrated by some adversary that allows the adversary to bleed all the information at will.”

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