Only days prior to reports that a cyberattack caused millions of dollars to be stolen from Citibank, Nextgov spoke to Tom Talleur, a forensic technologist who spent 31 years as a federal criminal investigator with NASA and the Defense Department, identifying the source of cyberthreats and tracking down hackers. He is now retired from private practice. News of the Citibank breach probably didn't surprise Talleur, whose outlook on the current state of cybersecurity and law enforcement is bleak: “The barn doors are open and the horses are out,” he says. “The threats are ubiquitous and broad.”
Talleur sat down with Nextgov senior reporter Jill R. Aitoro to talk about the state of cybersecurity in government.
Nextgov: You've been out of federal government for a decade. What's changed in terms of cybercrime?
Talleur: All the crimes we're seeing today that are called “cybersecurity issues” were around 20 years ago. The difference is the attack vectors have changed. When the Internet went commercial in the 1990s, and government gave up custodial ownership, the attacks that before were directed only at government resources started to hit broadband at home. That's one shift. Another shift is that we now see other governments utilizing the Internet. Cyber warfare has gone global.
Nextgov: How has the commercialization of the Internet affected the threat against federal agencies?
Talleur: It's opened up government to a broader range of threats. They're trying to defend themselves as a homogenous entity, but it's the individuals that work for the government and manage the networks that are actually being targeted. We see government trying to move to these Trusted Internet Connections to [reduce access points to the Internet], but the barn doors are open and the horses are out. There's a lot they can do, and are trying to do, to lock down the hatches, but the threats are so ubiquitous and broad.
At the same time, cyber intruders and attackers are ramping up their skills, and two to three to four years ahead of those out to catch them. The gap is growing, and when it merges with other technologies — nano- and biotechnology, robotics — these exploits are going to permeate our environment even more. Unless we take a Manhattan Project-type approach to dealing with these technologies, so we preplan how we're going to manage them before deployment, we're going to face much bigger problems down the road. We're on a convergence course.
Cyberattacks are really the worst threat next to biological weapons, but government lost sight of that after 9/11. Now things are so unraveled that everyone is looking around and saying, “What's happening? It's worse than it used to be.” The government has never dealt with cybersecurity in a coordinated manner, never had the right leadership at the top. Typically, they hire some policy wonk that doesn't really understand the guts of the issue or have the authority to do the job. Until the president himself says this is the way we're going to deal with this — like he's doing with health care — nothing will happen. And by then, it will be too late. We're not thinking in terms of what will happen 10 and 20 years from now; we're just focused on what will happen tomorrow.
Nextgov: Have you seen improvement in how cybersecurity is being handled since Obama took office?
Talleur: I don't see it, but I'm not there on the inside anymore. What I see is a lot of initiatives being launched that government can talk about in a press conference and call change. Is it making a difference? Maybe some, but on what scale? One reason I retired is there was nothing more I could do to stop the threat. The Internet was created to share, not to defend against these attacks, and now its own functionality is being used against us. That said, nothing is going to happen without direct presidential involvement and some alternative options to the current Internet.
Nextgov: So do you recommend removing or restricting certain services and operations from the network?
Talleur: Realistically, that's almost impossible. It's like moving … petrol-driven cars to hydrogen. It sounds like a smart idea, but getting the infrastructure in place is difficult to say the least.
This is a bigger issue than cybersecurity in and of itself. This is our failure as a nation to come up with constructive approaches to deal with pandemic problems up front, and recognize the consequences of our own decisions. Any future technology with communicative properties can be hacked. Once these merge, which will happen quickly, it's going to be very difficult to manage. We don't have the policy mechanisms in place to deal with these global threats.
Nextgov: You have a long history in investigating cybercrimes. What are the biggest challenges to getting the bad guys?
Talleur: At NASA, we recorded millions of attacks and collected evidence that was so vast, we were six months behind on executing search warrants to put the bad guys in jail. Even after you become good at investigating cybercrimes, you then face the challenge of dealing with the volumes of evidence. It takes years to act on this information, and in the meanwhile, criminals keep doing what they do.
The federal government would argue that they don't have enough resources to investigate these crimes, but the real problem is that law enforcement is trying to make up for what policymakers, security officials and legislators haven't been able to do, which is put in place effective mechanisms to defend against the threat. We have policies that say to defend against cybercrime, but they're not implemented correctly. And we have agencies that are supposed to thwart these crimes, but instead say, “It didn't happen on my watch.” Until it gets personal, people won't do anything about it.
Tom Talleur is a retired federal law enforcement executive from NASA, forensic technologist, futurist and technology writer.