Earlier this year, Russian hackers successfully penetrated the Pentagon's computer network. So said Secretary of Defense Ash Carter during a speech he delivered today at Stanford University in which he mentioned the intrusion as part of a broader discussion of the Pentagon's new approach to innovation and technology, a subject of growing importance in senior Pentagon circles.
The fact that Russians were caught poking around the Pentagon's computers isn't a huge surprise. Last October, news broke about Russian hackers breaking into the White House's unclassified networks. In March, further revelations emerged that the State Department's unclassified networks had also been breached. In the broader context of foreign attacks on US government networks, it would be far more shocking if nobody at the DOD had ever screwed up and downloaded a tainted attachment.
Rather, what is more important and more interesting is that Carter came out with the bad news up front, rather than hoping nobody noticed, a far more common operating procedure for Washington bureaucracy. In fact, the admission of a breach — which was detected, monitored briefly for intelligence-gathering purposes, and subsequently closed — is a bit of an olive branch hand-delivered by Carter to Silicon Valley and the US IT industry as a whole.
The DOD has been heavily focused on rebooting its capacity to innovate and keep ahead of the curve (and especially their opponents) in the whiz-bang exotic technology department. After looking back at the focus of the DOD over the past 10 or 15 years, senior DoD leadership has come to the conclusion that the formidable technological edge that the US military enjoyed for decades is rapidly being eroded. In some cases, adversaries have overtaken — or will very shortly overtake — the US, and that spells nothing but trouble not just in the event of a major power conflict, but more broadly in the day-to-day deterrence needed to prevent a high-intensity, full-spectrum conflict from breaking out.
Carter notes that much of the technological advantage that the US has enjoyed over the last 75 years — essentially since the start of World War II — relied heavily on partnerships between the government, industry, and academia. Decades ago, the DOD's technology programs were the 800-pound gorilla in exotic, advanced technology. But since then, technology itself has become a major industry, and therefore the DOD isn't going to be the first and fastest at discovering each and every new thing to come down the pike.
That means there are a lot of militarily important technologies that can be purchased off the shelf by anyone who wants them. This can, for example, be seen in the incredible advancements in drone technologies available today. This isn't to say that the DOD has suddenly become a lightweight in the technology department — they account for about half of all federal spending on R&D, some $72 billion dollars. But even that big ol' pile of cash isn't enough to completely outweigh the sums being spent across the economy on new technologies. Thus, the Pentagon recognizes that if it wants to keep up with the bleeding edge of technology, it's going to need a little help from its friends. This is the main objective behind Carter's speeches and meetings this week with high-tech companies and innovators.
Regardless of whether you think Edward Snowden did a good thing or a bad thing, it's impossible to ignore the fact that those revelations worsened relationships between the big three participants in modern debates about technology policy: government (from the DOD to the NSA), industry (Google, Facebook, and all that), and the public (both as voters and consumers). Add to this the contentious debates over subjects like net neutrality, and it's not hard to see why Carter thought that patching up these relationships has to be a priority for the DOD right now.
There is colorful but increasingly dated DC slang about "showing a little leg." The idea is that one party in a bureaucratic negotiation reveals information to see if it elicits a positive response. If negotiations proceed and a deal is in the offing after one party "shows a little leg," then things might progress until one party "opens their kimono," and is completely transparent.
At this point, Carter's showing just a little bit of leg, and it's a long way off before anyone opens anyone's kimono, but this particular way to share information is interesting precisely because it is a headline-grabbing tidbit (even if it's entirely unexpected), and because it segues so very nicely into another point of Carter's speech. The vast majority of the nation's IT network is run and managed by the private sector. Even if there's no hot, romantic relationship between the Pentagon and Silicon Valley in the offing, there still absolutely has to be better cooperation and coordination on basic cybersecurity.
In light of numerous prior incidents of private sector companies losing sensitive information to foreign hacks — especially the Chinese theft of huge amounts of technical data about the F-35, the Pentagon's newest warplane — Carter's trip really is a way for the DOD to remind industry that whatever the day's news happens to be, they're both in this together, and will be for some time to come.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
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