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Defense Dept. proposes armoring civilian networks

Deputy Secretary William Lynn proposes at the RSA Conference that the military should "extend" its so-called active defenses to critical private sector networks, but doesn't offer details.

William Lynn, U.S. deputy secretary of defense
William Lynn, U.S. deputy secretary of defense, speaks at the RSA Conference in San Francisco. James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO-- A top Defense Department official said today that the U.S. military should "extend" a technological shield used to protect its own networks to important private sector computers as well, which could sweep in portions of the Internet and raise civil liberty concerns.

William Lynn, the deputy secretary of defense, proposed at the RSA Conference extending "the high level of protection afforded by active defenses to private networks that operate infrastructure" that's crucial to the military or the U.S. economy.

What Lynn refers to as "active defenses" were pioneered by the National Security Agency. In an essay last year, Lynn likened them to a cross between a "sentry" and a "sharpshooter" that can also "hunt within" a network for malicious code or an intruder who managed to penetrate the network's perimeter.

But the power to monitor civilian networks for bad behavior includes the ability to monitor in general, and it was the NSA that also pioneered a controversial warrantless wiretapping program under the Bush administration. NSA director Keith Alexander was named head of the U.S. Cyber Command last year, an idea that Lynn had championed.

Concerns about privacy are likely to turn on the details, including whether the military merely provides source code for defensive and offensive technologies -- or if it includes actual authority and oversight. Another open question is whether Web sites like and could be considered "critical infrastructure," or the definition would be narrowed to facilities like power plants.

Lynn, who has been speaking frequently about cybersecurity threats in the last year, didn't elaborate. "Securing military networks will matter little if the power grid goes down or the rest of the government stops functioning," he said.

That echoes comments made by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), who have pledged to reintroduce a controversial bill handing President Obama power over privately owned computer systems during a "national cyberemergency," with limited judicial review. It's been called an Internet "kill switch" bill, especially after Egypt did just that.

At the moment, the Pentagon is responsible only for defending .mil computers, and the Department of Homeland Security has responsibility for other governmental networks. Lynn said the military (and remember, the NSA is part of the Defense Department) is aiding DHS, much like it provides troops and helicopters to aid after a natural disaster

"The military provides support to DHS in the cyber domain," Lynn said. Like equipment and troops provided to FEMA, he added, military "cyber" support will be "available to civilian leaders to help protect the networks that support government operations and critical infrastructure...These resources will be under civilian control and be used according to civilian laws."

"Through classified threat-based information and the technology we have developed to employ a network defense," he said, "we can significantly increase the effectiveness of cybersecurity practices that industry is carrying out."

Homeland Security hinted at this during an interview with CNET last year at the RSA conference. The department said at the time that it might eventually extend its Einstein 3 technology, which is designed to detect and prevent in-progress cyberattacks by sharing information with the NSA, to networks operated by the private sector.