Cybersecurity lessons from the Civil War

The director of the National Cyber Security Center makes connections between today's online dangers and the insider threats and hacks of American history.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
3 min read

LAS VEGAS--The security issues we face today in cyberspace are the same ones the country faced during the American Civil War when Abe Lincoln was relying on telegraph transmissions to help keep the country united, a top U.S. cybersecurity official said in a keynote speech at the Black Hat security conference here Thursday.

Abe Lincoln, "the first wired president," Beckstrom says. Rod Beckstrom

Lincoln was obsessed with reading telegrams that delivered updates from the battlefield, using them to learn about the military strategies and to offer feedback, said Rod Beckstrom, director of the National Cyber Security Center in the Department of Homeland Security.

"If he were alive today we would probably call him an e-mail junkie or a cyber junkie," he said. "He was the first wired president; (telegraph) was a fixed wire" that could be severed or tapped.

Security lessons from battle were available even earlier in American history, according to Beckstrom. In the French and Indian wars, British forces relied on traditional warfare formations and often got slaughtered by French frontiersmen and their Native American supporters, who used guerrilla tactics like roadside ambushes.

One officer fighting on the side of the British who survived such attacks--George Washington--took the lessons of flexible fighting and guerrilla warfare with him in fighting for American independence, he said.

Rod Beckstrom, director of the National Cyber Security Center, gives a keynote at Black Hat on Thursday. Elinor Mills

Even that American revolutionary war was almost lost because of "one of greatest threats we face today in cyberspace"--insider threats and hackers, Beckstrom said, displaying a portrait of Benedict Arnold, a disgruntled commanding officer who was passed over for promotion and charged with corruption after facing financial difficulties.

"He saw an opportunity," and was selling plans for West Point and other military secrets to the British, but was caught in the end, Beckstrom said.

"We have the same threats today, just on different technology and mediums," Beckstrom said.

Today, however, nations, businesses, and individuals also confront a single point of failure in cyberspace, with the Internet protocols and technologies, like the Domain Name System, he said. (A serious DNS vulnerability was the subject of a session at Black Hat on Wednesday.)

"Invest in protocols because it may be the cheapest security dollars we can invest," Beckstrom said. The Department of Homeland Security is funding research related to DNS security, among other initiatives, he added. "We've got to move forward because we've got to change the odds of this game."

The IP dependencies in the telecommunications sector put emergency communications, like mobile phone texting, at risk, Beckstrom said, noting that he was in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, and in Pakistan when the 2005 earthquake hit and saw firsthand how crucial texting is. A cell phone tower can handle 200 or more calls simultaneously and about 5,000 text messages a second, according to Beckstrom.

And don't forget the plain old telephone system, which will still be operational if the IP system goes down, he said.

Without elaboration, Beckstrom said: "Why can't we quarantine computers that are disrupting the Internet?"

He touched on issues of punishment, "cyber justice," and cyber diplomacy, and ended the talk asking more questions than he answered.

"What are the new cyber rules?" he asked. "How do we develop an international framework and move toward cooperation?"

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