No Government Plan to Shutter the Net

Homeland Security Exec: Impractical and Costly
No Government Plan to Shutter the Net
The government has no plan to bring down the privately controlled parts of the Internet in event of a national emergency.

Peter Fonash, acting deputy assistant secretary of cybersecurity communications at the Department of Homeland Security, told a House panel on Tuesday that such a move would be impractical and the cost itself would be prohibitive.

"When you're talking about the Internet, you're really talking about AT&T, Verizon and Sprint," he testified before a joint hearing on agencies' response to cyberspace policy held by two subcommittees of the House Committee on Science and Technology. "Everyone uses those networks. It's a common carrier perspective here; so it's very difficult to take it off grids. What we have to do is work together with industry, making sure it's secure. You can have portions of it that are more secure."

Fonash responded to comments from Rep. Adrian Smith of Nebraska, the ranking Republican on one of the two House Science and Technology Committee's subcommittees hosting the hearing in which he asked if the administration had any intent in a national emergency to shutdown Internet traffic that controls the nation's critical IT infrastructure, such as the network that controls the electrical grid.

Cybersecurity legislation introduced by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D.-W.Va., would grant the president the authority to shut off Internet traffic in a national emergency.

Earlier in the hearing, Smith said he appreciated President Obama's comments that the government shouldn't monitor private-sector Internet traffic, but noted a story in the June 13 issue of The New York Times that quoted administration officials admitting that such a privacy commitment might be a challenge to meet because of how the Internet functions without concern for international borders.

Adrian Smith

Fonash assured Smith that domestic Internet messages intercepted through Einstein, an intrusion detection system that monitors the government's network gateways for unauthorized traffic, does not reveal personal messages. "What we do is drop that," he said. However, Fonash said the government monitors the messages' header information to determine where they originate and being sent, seeks out bit patterns to see if the transmissions contain malicious code. "We wouldn't get into the privacy of the person's e-mail unless there was some issue about a national security issue," Fonash said. "What you can do is protect the privacy by looking at the header information. There will be issues about packet captures as we go forward but we're ... making sure that we're protecting the privacy of the individuals."

As to whether federal laws or regulations should be changed to allow for closer monitoring of messages, Fonash deferred to make a commitment. "That's an issue that needs further study," he said.

The hearing was held by the Subcommittees on Technology and Innovation and Research and Science Education.

Also see, Cybersecurity R&D Needs New Approach, the research and science education panel's hearing held a week earlier.

About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.

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