Nation states becoming bolder in cyberspace, says US cyber commander

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Nation states are employing more coordinated campaigns in cyberspace as opposed to unorganized, haphazard intrusions, according to a U.S. Cyber Command official.

“My sense of what nations are doing in this space is its more coordinate[d], more interoperable from their perspective, and more structured and more integrated,” said Vice Adm. Tim White, commander of the Cyber National Mission Force at CYBERCOM. “They’re building what I would call campaigns, and they are being very thoughtful about it and purposeful in their approach.

“One of the ways that we’ve shifted a little bit over the last couple of years is we’ve organized our forces to focus on the four of the four plus one — that’s commonly understood that the things the [Department of Defense] is organizing itself against — in my case that would always be the ability of the state actor to generate cyber power as an instrument” to counter U.S interests, he said during an April 4 panel discussion at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space Exposition.

As such, his focus is squarely on Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. He noted that the U.S. is figuring out how to get at these groups and their coordinated efforts.

Current and former officials recently  told The Washington Post that adversaries will sometimes probe U.S. systems to see how the government might respond as a means of gaining insight to certain capabilities, tactics, techniques and procedures.

Complicating matters is the increased proliferation of commercial technologies; not only available to the U.S. and its partners but peer threats. “They have as much access to the commercial sector and advanced technology as we do,” White said. It’s a consumer- and commercial-driven market, he added.

An interconnected world and technologies that span the commercial civilian and military sectors justifies key partnerships, according to Vice Adm. Michael Gilday, commander of Fleet Cyber Command/10th Fleet, who spoke during the same panel.

He told conference attendees that industry is the key partnership in the cyber domain, though not in the traditional sense. While almost every military commander lauds the partnership with industry in bringing innovative and creative solutions to bear for the military, Gilday said, there is a criticality of industry partnership given that nation-state threats not only point at .mil websites but also .gov and .com.

“So if you want to have cyber [situational awareness] across what’s going on in cyberspace, we can’t just look at .mil” because actors are active in .com and .gov as well, he said.

“Understanding what’s going on in industry in terms of how they’re dealing with those adversaries and how we’re dealing with those adversaries can be pretty powerful if we become more transparent and work to ensure partnership along the threat line,” he added.

Despite technological advancements, White noted, many adversaries are not necessarily employing the most cutting-edge or highly advanced solutions available. “We hear an awful lot about this term ‘advanced persistent threat,’ ” he said. “The thing that characterizes an ATP is less about being advanced, necessarily, and more about being persistent.”

It is only a matter of time before these advanced solutions such as artificial intelligence are employed in broad terms, given their availability, he asserted.