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New NSA Initiative Signals Aggressive Cybersecurity Strategy Against Foreign Attackers

The National Security Agency (NSA) will create a special sub-agency to adopt a more aggressive stance in cybersecurity warfare.

No longer will the nation’s chief intelligence command concentrate solely on defending the country against cyber attacks by foreign adversaries, officials said. A broader initiative to conjoin its offensive and defensive operations is behind the new directorate. The Wall Street Journal first reported the agency’s plan to retool its cybersecurity profile.

“It’s a strategy that now accepts the fact that we have to get involved early on,” said U.S. Cyber Command and NSA chief General Paul Nakasone, who introduced the strategic shift at the International Conference on Cyber Security at Fordham University. "We have two missions and for a number of years, NSA has been very active in what was called the information assurance mission. We are re-emphasizing that mission under the Cybersecurity Directorate under Anne Neuberger's leadership," he said. The directorate is slated to become operational on October 1.

Neuberger is currently an assistant deputy director at the NSA, a role in which she helped establish the U.S. Cyber Command and worked as chief risk officer leading the agency’s election security efforts for the 2018 midterms. She will be one of the highest-ranking women at the agency since Ann Caracristi was named deputy director nearly 40 years ago and will report to Nakasone.

The directorate’s mission includes sharing insights into specific cyber threats with other federal agencies as well as the private sector. “Our capabilities are greater than our vulnerabilities and we have worked with partners across the government to mitigate the vulnerabilities,” Nakasone said. The latest move by the NSA ups the ante of the federal government to deal with cyberspace threats. Earlier this month, the NSA said it will secure energy grids with retro technologies, following a spate of attacks on the nation’s critical infrastructure.

To some extent Nakasone’s overall plan mirrors the U.K.’s intention to dedicate £22 million ($28 million USD) to underwrite a new cyber operations center to defend the nation against cyber attackers. That move indicates the UK’s newfound willingness to counter cyber attacks on its critical infrastructure by returning fire to damage other countries’ infrastructures and perhaps to launch preemptive strikes as well. Last October, the U.S. and U.K. signed an accord in which both countries agreed to work together to outpace adversaries in emerging cybersecurity and artificial intelligence technologies. The agreement was signed at the first meeting of the Atlantic Future Forum in New York.

In the last year, Nakasone has set the stage to change the nation’s cyberspace posture. In May, 2018, the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command officially opened the doors to the new, $500 million cyber center and simultaneously named Nakasone as both CyberCom commander and NSA director. It meant he controlled both the world’s foremost spy agency and the most powerful military hacking operation. And, it signaled Nakasone’s position that CyberCom needs the NSA’s intelligence to operate effectively and his intention to vigorously defend against cyber attacks with a greater reliance on military cyber capabilities.

It will take some doing. Chinese cyber spies recovered hacking tools used by the NSA in a 2016 attack on its systems and reverse engineered the code to hit targets in Europe and Asia, cybersecurity specialist Symantec said in a report issued two months ago. In large part the U.S. has chosen to go it alone on cybersecurity. The Trump administration was among a handful of countries that declined to sign the “Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, a non-binding agreement to limit cyber attacks and repel attackers worldwide, signed by 51 governments and 100 companies worldwide, including Facebook, Google and Microsoft. Australia, China, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey also refused to endorse the proclamation.

D. Howard Kass

D. Howard Kass is a contributing editor to MSSP Alert. He brings a career in journalism and market research to the role. He has served as CRN News Editor, Dataquest Channel Analyst, and West Coast Senior Contributing Editor at Channelnomics. As the CEO of The Viewpoint Group, he led groundbreaking market research.