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Cyber-intel sharing stuck in 20th Century

When the National Security Agency discovers malware it thinks another agency should know about ASAP, the next step is a maddening one for an agency steeped in high technology. The NSA staff member must pick up a telephone and call an expert at the other agency.

NSA's Neal Ziring. Credit:

The NSA’s Neal Ziring has a whole shtick worked out to capture the frustration of it all: “Is Bob there? No, he’s out to lunch? Tell him to call me back.”

Ziring is the technical director inside NSA’s Information Assurance Directorate. He told Deep Dive he wants the NSA and other agencies to establish an automated “information exchange” that would instantly share samples of malware code and analyses among agencies, and possibly the private sector.

The need for speed was a common theme here at the McAfee Public Sector Summit.

McAfee’s Phyllis Schneck, chief technology officer for public sector work, drew snickers for one of her briefing charts. It showed a black and white photo of office workers labeled “people speed.” Another photo showed cables plugged into a computer, and it was labeled "light speed." A third photo showed the inside of the Capitol Building, and it was labeled “no speed.”

It was an obvious reference to the failure of cybersecurity legislation in Congress.

President Obama issued a cybersecurity executive order in February to try to compensate, but Ziring said it’s no substitute for spelling out in law when and how the NSA can share what it knows with the private sector.

“The executive order kind of bumps (threat sharing) up to the top of the priority list,” he said.

It declares the White House’s intention to “increase the volume, timeliness, and quality of cyber threat information shared with U.S. private sector entities.”

An executive order can only do so much, given the strict legal authorities NSA operates under: “We’re doing what we can within the authorities we have today. We believe we could do more,” Ziring said.

If the authority question is worked out, data could be shared with the private sector in a “machine readable format,” he said.

“NSA might use it to send (threat information) to FBI or the private sector,” he said.

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