NSA Boosts Effort to Thwart Cyber Attacks

Thursday, 08 Jul 2010 02:35 PM

By Dan Weil

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The National Security Agency is putting together a program to ferret out computer attacks on private companies and government agencies that operate vital infrastructure, sources tell The Wall Street Journal.

The program, “Perfect Citizen,” is designed to protect projects such as America's electrical grid and nuclear power plants.

Intelligence officials have warned that China and Russia have implemented surveillance of computer systems that control our vital infrastructure.

The NSA would utilize sensors placed in computer networks for the critical infrastructure. The sensors would be activated by unusual activity that could indicate a cyber attack, the Journal sources say.

Some industry and government officials see the project as a vital step to counter a new security threat, while others view it as an unwarranted NSA intrusion into domestic affairs.

A classified contract of up to $100 million was given to Raytheon Corp. for the beginning of the project, a Journal source says.

"The overall purpose of the [program] is our government ... feel[s] that they need to insure the public sector is doing all they can to secure infrastructure critical to our national security," reads an internal Raytheon e-mail seen by the Journal.

Others disagree.

The program is long overdue, and any privacy intrusion it creates is no greater than that of traffic cameras, a military official told the Journal. He says Perfect Citizen is a logical extension of previous efforts by the government to protect critical infrastructure from physical attacks.

Protecting companies against cyber attacks is a tricky business, experts say.

"Security is always a cat-and-mouse game between hackers and security vendors," Kartik Hosanagar, a professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said on the Knowledge@Wharton website.

"What has changed is that both companies and hackers have grown sophisticated. So the good news is that most security software will protect us from the most basic threats, which was not the case in the past. But the bad news is that malware and viruses have become more sophisticated, so even advanced users can fall prey to them."

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