NSA offers explanation of Perfect Citizen

Claiming that a Wall Street Journal story about Perfect Citizen was inaccurate, the federal agency offers its own take on the project but serves up few details.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
2 min read

The Perfect Citizen project is purely a research-and-engineering effort, not an attempt to monitor companies against cyberattack, the National Security Agency said Thursday.

The NSA issued a brief explanation of the new project in response to a Wall Street Journal story that described Perfect Citizen as a government system designed to monitor vital agencies and private utilities against potential cyberthreats. The project would establish a series of sensors installed throughout various computer networks that would raise an alarm in case of a pending cyberattack, according to the Journal.

But in an e-mail statement attributed to NSA spokeswoman Judith Emmel, the agency denied that Perfect Citizen would involve any type of monitoring activity or sensors, and labeled it as "purely a vulnerabilities assessment and capabilities development contract." She added that "it does not involve the monitoring of communications or the placement of sensors on utility company systems."

Although the agency called the Journal's story an "inaccurate portrayal of the work performed at the National Security Agency," it said that due to the highly sensitive nature of its work, it could not confirm or deny specific allegations addressed in the article. As a result, the NSA shared few details on the project.

Specifically referring to it as a contract, the NSA said Perfect Citizen "provides a set of technical solutions that help the agency better understand the threats to national-security networks, which is a critical part of NSA's mission of defending the nation." The Journal had pinpointed Raytheon as the recipient of the initial phase of the contract in a deal worth up to $100 million, though neither the NSA nor Raytheon would confirm that report, according to Reuters.

As described in the Journal, the project has reportedly triggered mixed reactions, with some eyeing it as an effort by the NSA to intrude into domestic affairs and others seeing it as an important step in combating cyberattacks.

Addressing those allegations in the statement, Emmel said "any suggestions that there are illegal or invasive domestic activities associated with this contracted effort are simply not true. We strictly adhere to both the spirit and the letter of U.S. laws and regulations."

Whether Perfect Citizen is a monitoring system, as reported by the Journal, or a simply an R&D contract, as defined by the NSA, the threat of cyberattacks against the United States remains real. Security experts both inside and outside the beltway have long been warning that a serious cyberattack against the nation's infrastructure could do significant damage.

Although cybersecurity has been on the government's agenda for the past few years, many believe that the United States remains highly vulnerable and still has much work to do to shore up its cyberdefenses.