Tech

White House Weighs New Cybersecurity Approach After Failure to Detect Hacks

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The question is how to set up such a system.

After revelations in 2013 by the former intelligence contractor Edward J. Snowden that set off a debate about government surveillance, American technology companies are wary of the appearance of sharing data with American intelligence agencies, even if that data is just warnings about malware. Google was stung by the revelation in the Snowden documents that the National Security Agency was intercepting data transmitted between its servers overseas. Several years later, under pressure from its employees, it ended its participation in Project Maven, a Pentagon effort to use artificial intelligence to make its drones more accurate.

Amazon, in contrast, has no such compunctions about sensitive government work: It runs the cloud server operations for the C.I.A. But when the Senate Intelligence Committee asked company officials to testify last month — alongside executives of FireEye, Microsoft and SolarWinds — about how the Russians exploited systems on American soil to launch their attacks, they declined to attend.

Companies say that before they share reporting on vulnerabilities, they would need strong legal liability protections.

The most politically palatable headquarters for such a clearinghouse — avoiding the legal and civil liberties concerns of using the National Security Agency — would be the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Mr. Gerstell described the idea as “automated computer sensors and artificial intelligence acting on information as it comes in and instantaneously spitting it back out.”

The department’s existing “Einstein” system, which is supposed to monitor intrusions and potential attacks on federal agencies, never saw the Russian attack underway — even though it hit nine federal departments and agencies. The F.B.I., lawmakers say, does not have broad monitoring capabilities, and its focus is divided across other forms of crime, counterterrorism and now domestic extremism threats.

“I don’t want the intelligence agencies spying on Americans, but that leaves the F.B.I. as the de facto domestic intelligence agency to deal with these kinds of attacks,” said Senator Angus King, a Maine independent, member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and co-chairman of the cyberspace commission. “I’m just not sure they’re set up for this.”

There are other hurdles. The process of getting a search warrant is too cumbersome for tracking nation-state cyberattacks, Mr. Gerstell said. “Someone’s got to be able to take that information from the N.S.A. and instantly go take a look at that computer,” he said. “But the F.B.I. needs a warrant to do that, and that takes time by which point the adversary has escaped.”

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