Locking down America's Net defenses

Andy Purdy, acting director of DHS' National Cyber Security unit, says that though progress has been made in protecting the Net, the work isn't done.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--How prepared is the United States to defend against a cyberattack?

We'll soon find out, says Andy Purdy, acting director of the National Cyber Security Division of the Department of Homeland Security.

Last week, Purdy oversaw the first large-scale mock cyberattack, aimed at gauging the nation's readiness to handle computer-based threats to critical infrastructure.

The weeklong exercise, dubbed "Cyber Storm," came three years after the Bush administration signed off on the National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace. Results of the exercise will be made public this summer.

In the meantime, though progress has been made on the government's strategy for protecting the Internet and securing information systems, the work is not done, a panel of security experts said at the RSA Conference 2006 here on Tuesday.

Purdy was one of the panelists. He sat down with CNET News.com to discuss the nation's preparedness for cyberattacks and what should be done to help defend critical infrastructure.

Q: In a nutshell, can you describe the National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace? What's it all about?
Purdy: The strategy really told Americans what needs to be done to help secure cyberspace. It articulates high-level priorities for action. At DHS we try to implement those priorities. From that we developed our mission, in collaboration with our public and private partners, to secure cyberspace and America's cyberassets.

What kind of tangible things have actually been achieved over the past three years?
Purdy: Priority one was to build an effective national cybersecurity response system. I believe we have built that capability. In fact, during last week's Cyber Storm exercise, we tested and worked through communications paths and processes for responding to significant malicious cyberactivity.

We have a robust national cybersecurity response system.

The response system, is that the Computer Emergency Response Team, CERT, for example?
Purdy: It is really a combination of capabilities. Our US-CERT, which is the partnership between DHS and public and private sectors, is the operational piece of what we do to try to prepare for and respond to significant cyberactivity. That's a key component of the cyber response system. What we have done is we have leveraged the capabilities of the U.S. government from a cyberdefense perspective. We brought together the capabilities of situation awareness, response and recovery, so that we can work effectively together to help reduce those cyberrisks.

You mentioned the Cyber Storm exercise you had last week. What does such an exercise entail? Is there an easy way to describe what you do when such a thing goes down? Do you try to mimic an actual attack?
Purdy: The Cyber Storm exercise included players from government at the federal, state and international level and key private sector participants to work through what would happen if there were significant cyberattacks that disrupted or impacted the energy and transportation infrastructure and targeted federal, state and international governments with the intent of disrupting those government operations. It basically tested and practiced how the different entities would respond to understand what was happening, attribute the source of it and help provide actionable guidance to help reduce the impact of that activity.

Have you been able to determine whether we are actually well prepared for this, or is there much that needs to be done?
Purdy: We believe that we have a robust national cybersecurity response system. However, we recognize the need to enhance that system to more effectively prepare for significant cyberattacks or the cyberconsequences of physical attacks or natural disasters. There were 115 public, private and international organizations participating in the Cyber Storm exercise, most of them working from their regular place of business in 60 locations across the country and a number of other countries.

Do you have the results of the exercise?
Purdy: It is a laborious effort to understand who said what to whom and when, to understand how well the communications paths and processes really worked. We expect that that effort will culminate in a report in the summer that we will be making public.

We don't have specific threat information of terrorist groups wanting to and intending to launch cyberattacks against us.

Was this exercise really about knowing if our information sharing works or was this about knowing if our defenses work?
Purdy: Because it was a simulated series of attacks, it did not involve attacks on real networks. It wasn't testing the ability to actually stop attacks. Instead, it was testing the communications paths and processes that would be used by the cybersecurity community, law enforcement, the intelligence community, the Department of Defense and the private sector in responding to significant attacks.

What do you think about our ability to actually defend against an attack. How well prepared are we to defend ourselves against one?
Purdy: As President Bush said last week, America remains at risk. We remain at risk from both a physical and cyber perspective. In other words, malicious actors can attack our critical infrastructures and cause disruption. We are working to help mitigate the significance of those disruptions. We don't have perfect defenses; we recognize that these are risks we have to mitigate, and this Cyber Storm was an effort to help advance that.

Do you have any recommendation for what government, companies and even individuals should do to help us protect the national infrastructure against cyberattacks?
Purdy: The national strategy really lays out the call to action as to what folks need to do. For example, in the area of consumers, we're trying to raise awareness and we're doing so in partnership with the National Cyber Security Alliance and the Federal Trade Commission as to what folks need to do to help secure their systems. We're working closely with law enforcement, in addition to helping make sure that information that can be shared is shared about malicious activities and those who commit cyber-related crimes, to make sure those efforts are investigated and the individuals prosecuted.