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Department of (Internet) Defense

"Cyber-security" is one of those hot topics that has launched a thousand seminars and strategy papers, without producing much in the way of policy. But that's beginning to change, in one of 2011's most important but least noted government moves.

This summer, with little public fanfare, the Obama administration rolled out a strategy for cyber-security that couples the spooky technical wizardry of the National Security Agency with the friendly, cops-and-firefighters ethos of the Department of Homeland Security. This partnership may be the smartest aspect of the policy, which has so far avoided the controversies that usually attach themselves like viruses to anything involving government and the Internet.

The new initiative was explained at a conference here sponsored by the Aspen Strategy Group, a forum that has been meeting each summer for the past 30 years to discuss defense issues. Among the participants were the two people who helped frame the plan, William Lynn and Jane Holl Lute, the deputy secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security, respectively.

What's driving the policy is a growing recognition that the Internet is under attack -- right now, every day -- by foreign intelligence agencies and malicious hackers alike. Experts cite some frightening examples: A May 2011 attack on Citigroup, in which hackers stole credit-card information on 360,000 clients; a still-mysterious October 2010 assault on the Nasdaq stock exchange; a 2009 breach of the U.S. electrical grid by Russian and Chinese intruders; and a 2009 heist of plans for the F-35 joint strike fighter.

And that's just what's public. McAfee, the computer-security firm, registers 60,000 new bits of malicious software every day. But classified estimates are said to be much scarier -- with a hundred attacks for every one that's publicly disclosed. It's good to be skeptical about such unspecified threats -- when officials warn direly, "If only you knew what we know" -- but in this case, the danger is obviously real. The question is what to do about it.

The heart of the new cyber-defense strategy is to spread the use of secret tools developed by NSA. These systems are known as "active defense" because they use sensors and other techniques to block malicious code before it can affect operations.

This summer's big innovation was using the government's expertise to begin shielding the nation's critical private infrastructure. In late May, the Pentagon and Homeland Security launched what they called the DIB Cyber Pilot (that's short for "defense industrial base"). To protect about 20 defense companies that volunteered for the experiment, Homeland Security worked with four major Internet service providers, or ISPs, to help them clean malicious software from the Internet feed going to the contractors.

What made this recipe powerful was that the NSA provided what officials like to call its "special sauce," in the form of electronic signatures of malicious software, which the NSA gathers 2 4/7 through its intelligence network.

The experiment has been running for 90 days now, and officials say it's working. The ISPs have blocked hundreds of attempted intrusions before they could get to the defense companies. The lesson for Lynn: "It's possible for the government to share threat information with private industry," under existing laws.

Here's what I took from five days of discussion: The Internet was deliberately built with an open architecture, which was its greatest strength but is now a vulnerability. Regulatory norms may be useful (just like fire codes and clean-water standards). But real security will come when it's a moneymaker for private companies who want to satisfy public demand for an Internet that isn't crawling with bugs.

The NSA can help by sharing its secret tools. But it needs a civilian interface, in Homeland Security, to reassure the public that this is about security, not spying.