Report: NSA initiating program to detect cyberattacks

The "Perfect Citizen" program would monitor government agencies and key private companies to guard against attacks on the nation's utility grid, power plants, and transportation systems, says the Wall Street Journal.

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 National Security Agency is reportedly launching a program to monitor for cyberattacks against government agencies and private companies responsible for key services such as electricity, nuclear power, and transportation, according to a story in Thursday's Wall Street Journal.

The program, known as "Perfect Citizen," is already triggering mixed reactions, says the Journal. Some in industry and government see it as an attempt by the NSA to intrude into domestic matters, while others believe it's a much-needed step in fighting the threat of cyberattacks.

Perfect Citizen would establish a series of sensors across various computer networks that would sound an alarm in the event of a possible cyberattack. The sensors would be deployed at agencies and private companies that handle the nation's most critical infrastructure, including the electrical grid, nuclear power plants, subway systems, and air-traffic control networks.

The program would reportedly focus on older computer systems and networks that were initially designed without Internet access or any real security in place but have since been linked to the Internet, leaving them open and vulnerable. Since it can't force private companies to accept Perfect Citizen, the government would dangle various incentives to get them to tie into the new system, according to the Journal.

In spite of privacy concerns, many businesses might find the extra protection valuable, as in the case of Google, which enlisted the aid of the NSA last year to help investigate the cyberattacks launched from China. Reportedly, Google and the NSA chatted earlier this year about a more formal partnership to thwart future cyberattacks.

Officials in Washington and executives in the private sector have increasingly expressed fears that major cyberattacks launched against the country's critical infrastructure could seriously harm the government and economy. U.S. intelligence experts have already been monitoring attempts to hack into the electric grid and other key services, which they believe stem from China and Russia, the Journal reported.

The new program is getting funding from the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative. This multibillion initiative hinted at the Perfect Citizen project with plans by the NSA to expand its surveillance into the private sector through a network monitoring system named Einstein. Defense company Raytheon has already scored a contract worth up to $100 million for the initial stage of the project, the Journal said, citing a person familiar with the project.

Since Perfect Citizen is still in its infancy, key questions will need to be addressed, including which network systems will be monitored and how information will be gathered. The NSA would probably kick off the project with the most critical services, such as electricity, nuclear power, and air traffic control systems, said the Journal.