The hacked emails of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign chairman John Podesta have been making headlines. So have leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee. Cybersecurity has been a major issue in the presidential campaign with wide ranging implications for both national security and private information.Rutgers Today spoke with John D. Cohen, a distinguished professor of professional practice in criminal justice and senior adviser to the Rutgers Institute for Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security, about how we should react to these threats. Cohen was formerly Acting Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis at the United States Department of Homeland Security.
In the past year, we’ve heard that the Democratic National Committee emails were hacked and that the email system used by the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon was hacked. Yahoo recently acknowledged a breach. Why is this happening?
Cohen: The continuing drum beat of high profile breaches show that the cyber threat environment continues to evolve and expand. Government and private sector entities must deal with the growing likelihood that their systems will be compromised and sensitive data contained within will be extracted and utilized to support intelligence collection and/or other criminal activity. These trends reflect the growing use of cyberattacks by nation states such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea to project global influence – essentially through the use of cut-out hacking groups to wreak havoc or steal sensitive economic, national security and other information in furtherance of geo-political goals.
How great a threat is hacking to the security of our private information?
Cohen: Cyber-attackers have turned away from attacks solely intended to annoy, disrupt information system operations and associated critical infrastructure. But, increasingly, hackers have conducted cyber intrusions that are intended to extract sensitive data contained within a targeted system. Criminal organizations will hack into a retail or banking system, steal credit card, bank account and other identity related information so they can use that information in other criminal activities intended to acquire ill-gotten gain. Nation state intelligence organizations will use these same techniques to expand intelligence collection efforts, acquiring sensitive information about government officials and programs to aid recruitment and conduct covert intelligence operations. There is a common theme across the spectrum of cyber-attackers. Hack into private and government information systems, extract sensitive information and use that information for illicit purposes.
How great a threat is hacking to our national security?
Cohen: There is growing recognition in the United States and Europe that the cyber threat – and in particular the growing efforts by nation states to steal sensitive data from government and private sector systems – poses a significant threat to the economic and national security of the United States and other western nations. Some intelligence officials believe that the cyber threat represents the greatest long-term risk to both the economic and national security of the United States.
What can be done to prevent security breaches, tighten cybersecurity and raise our comfort level?
A first step is to understand the severity of the threat and prioritize addressing it. Government and corporate entities must consider a holistic approach to cyber security, an approach that focuses on both preventing inappropriate access and protecting the data contained within. When it comes to securing vital data, there is no room to compromise. While organizations spend billions of dollars annually setting up firewalls and other security measures to protect their networks from outside forces, all those efforts are for naught if sensitive data is stored and transmitted in an unprotected or under-protected manner.
Why has the Obama administration accused Russia of the Democratic National Committee and other cyberattacks?
Cohen: On October 7, 2016, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security issued a joint statement stating that they were “confident that the Russian Government directed the compromise of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including U.S. political organizations.” The statement further states that the theft of private data and subsequent disclosures of that data were specifically intended to interfere with the upcoming U.S. election. To make this type of definitive statement regarding culpability, law enforcement and intelligence officials must have uncovered specific information during the investigation of these cyberattacks. But other factors inform this recent statement. First, these attacks come at a time when Russia has dramatically expanded its use of cyberattacks as a part of its intelligence collection and operational efforts. Second, Russia has a long track record of meddling in Western European and other elections, particularly when the outcome can erode support for multi-lateral organizations such as NATO or the European Union – both of which are viewed by Russia as standing in the way of its geo-political interests. Finally, some believe that Russia seeks to reassert Super-power status on the global stage and to project that power by both engaging militarily in various conflict zones across the globe and by demonstrating that it can also conduct successful cyberattacks targeting critical Western state information systems with impunity.
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