NSA's 'Perfect Citizen' To Shield Networks From Cyber Attacks

infrastructure The Wall Street Journal

The NSA program would embed censors in networks serving critical areas such as electric grids and nuclear power plants and would be triggered by unusual activity that might predict coming cyber attacks, the report said.

The classified program is being expanded with funding from the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative, begun at the end of the Bush administration and continuing during the Obama administration, according to unnamed officials.

Raytheon, a defense contractor, has a classified contract for the initial phase of the program valued at up to $100 million, the report said, citing unnamed sources.

The program comes as cyber attacks are apparently increasing in frequency and government officials are growing increasingly worried about their potential to cause damage to the nation’s critical infrastructure. Recent reports about cyber attacks from aimed at Google are the most well known examples.

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Military officials are increasingly concerned that the nation’s infrastructure is virtually unprotected, with “big, glaring holes,” The Wall Street Journal report said.

However, one privacy advocate said much discussion needs to take place about such a program to ensure there are no intrusions on citizen's rights.

“Civil liberties issues always arise when surveillance is implanted into systems used by and relied upon by everyday citizens, especially if the surveillance is being done by intelligence entities like the NSA,” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Privacy Foundation, in a statement. “We need a public inquiry and public debate about how the system would work, why it's thought to be needed, how it's to be governed, and so on. We should not assume that it has to happen.”

Tien said that, for example, in areas such as electrical power, smart meters and smart grids may make household energy usage data available to utilities -- and thus directly to the government under Perfect Citizen.

“We're going to see issues like this arise repeatedly in the context of cybersecurity and critical infrastructure,” Tien said. “There is a tendency in parts of the government to hide such programs from the public. But even if there are security reasons for doing so, there are also strong transparency and democratic accountability reasons NOT to hide.”

According to the report, Perfect Citizen will monitor large, legacy computer control systems such subway systems and air-traffic control networks that have only in recent years been fitted with security and Internet connectivity and as such are more vulnerable to cyber attacks.

Perfect Citizen would retain the information gathered in large data banks to aid companies and government agencies in fighting attacks, the report said.