In an extensive project they have dubbed “Perfect Citizen,” the federal government wants to set up a system to detect cyber assaults on private companies and government agencies. This is to protect critical infrastructure like the electricity grid and nuclear-power plants.
This sounds like a good idea, especially if you saw that movie Live Free or Die Hard. In the movie, Bruce Willis and the Mac Guy try to stop hackers from completely shutting down the United States computer infrastructure. The hackers even crash the stocke market and bring the economy to its knees.
While this is the plot of a movie, it’s not an impossible scenario. In trying to make things more efficient, most of our infrastructure is networked and connected to the Internet. This makes it easier for different pieces to talk to each other, but also opens up the doors to hackers and this is what Perfect Citizen is aimed at stopping.
This is being funded by the multibillion-dollar Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative that started at the end of the Bush administration and has been continued by the Obama administration. There is another side to the story, though. In order to put preventative measures in place to stop hackers, the government will need to listen in on all of our Internet traffic. According to those close to the project:
The surveillance by the National Security Agency, the government’s chief eavesdropping agency, would rely on a set of sensors deployed in computer networks for critical infrastructure that would be triggered by unusual activity suggesting an impending cyber attack, though it wouldn’t persistently monitor the whole system.
I’m not an expert on network security, but I don’t see how they can detect unusual activity without monitoring persistently. Those computer networks would belong to electric companies, air traffic controls systems, public transit, and other important pieces of infrastructure. The government plans to work with these private companies to come to an agreement on where their sensors should be placed within the private system and what types of sensors should be used.
On the surface, this all seems to make sense. One military official called the program “long overdue” and said “any intrusion into privacy is no greater than what the public already endures from traffic cameras.” I’m pretty sure there are many Americans quite upset about those traffic cameras, though.