Suits, spooks and cyberpace
Scott Stevson of Palantir and Janina Gavankar of "True Blood" stake out a recent conference on cyber security
February 20th, 2012
09:29 PM ET

Suits, spooks and cyberpace

By Suzanne Kelly, CNN

There's a war going on in cyberspace. It's vast, complicated, and the foot soldiers are not exactly your usual suspects.

To understand just one of the ways in which this war is waged, consider the far-ranging impact of social media, and a story recently put forward by a government employee who works for a U.S. defense agency.

The story was about a Special Forces raid in 2009 that involved U.S. troops freeing a hostage in what was deemed a "successful" rescue operation at an undisclosed location overseas. The problem, said the program manager, who can't be named because of the sensitivity of his work, came after the troops left.

Within about 45 minutes, the "bad guys" moved in, rearranged the bodies of the hostage-takers that had been killed, took photographs, wrote a press release and posted it on a social media website.

It took the United States three days to respond.

"The damage had been done," said the manager.

Whether its information manipulation, or information theft, understanding the battlefield in cyberspace is key to safeguarding information, whether its the personal information kind, or the broader national security kind, or the kind that has government employees nervous about protecting critical infrastructure, from water filtration systems to air traffic control systems that operate via computers.

The program manager's message when it comes to winning the social media warfare is simple, and a philosophy that spans the cyber-battlefield: something needs to be done.

"When it comes to these issues, everybody's basically full of s-," he vented. "Our psy-ops guys (psychological operations), 80% of the coursework they get is learning what they can't legally do," he said, implying that the rules governing what U.S. agencies can do in cyberspace are way too strict.

"While we have our hands tied, our adversaries have completely free hands, while we at the U.S. government sit with our hands up our a–.

Its tough to get more blunt than that, but such raw honesty and frustration was almost expected at a recent gathering called "Suits & Spooks" in Arlington, Virginia. It billed itself as "the Anti-Conference."

"I start off with the premise that everybody recognizes is true, which is that we are not secure," said conference organizer Jeffrey Carr, who is also author of the book, "Inside Cyber Warfare."

"The security framework is completely broken."

To pull the conference together, Carr reached out to everyone he knows, and it turns out he knows some rather interesting and diverse people.

The guest list included a 25-year-old hacker who prefers the title "Independent Security Researcher," an actress who plays on a popular vampire drama and is interested in actors protecting their image online; a former intelligence officer who teaches international law at Georgetown University; and an online entrepreneur who started an online payment company and was included in Forbes magazine's "30 Under 30."

One of the conference's corporate sponsors was a company that takes its name, Palantir, from the movie "Lord of the Rings." Getting the picture yet?

"It's completely broken," said Carr.

"How do we fix it? What I hope is that progress will be made and many of the people here are from either a government agency a large corporation, so if they can take this back and start to plug in some of what they're learning from today's work, that will begin the ball rolling towards reshaping a revolution in security affairs, which is the point of the event."

Hacking Into the Problem

Twenty-five-year-old hacker Travis Goodspeed is easy to spot. His hair sprawls down his back. He says it's because his father, who had read a book by L. Ron Hubbard, told him when he was just a kid, that the barber would cut his ears off, just to see if he would believe it. He knows better now, but it proves that sometimes, even the absurd things stick with you. He now makes a living by consulting for companies that might prefer for their clients to believe they are doing business safely in cyberspace, but they know the real risks, which is why they hire people like Goodspeed.

"A couple of the smart grid companies have hired me to show them how I would cheat on my electric bill, so that they can fix it before people do cheat on their electric bills in that way," says Goodspeed, who admits he's "on the circuit," traveling the world attending hacking conferences and offering detailed explanations on his successes.

"My specialty is attacking small computers or building strange things out of them. There's a pink children's toy and I write new software into it which allows it to do all sorts of weird things. You can make a spectrum analyzer out of it, you can attack a smart meter with it, you can record what other sorts of radios are transmitting."

It was using similar self-adapted technology that he says helped him on a project he was recently hired to hack that involved penetrating the security measures around a radio communication system. The system was being considered by the government to address communications issues that could arise among first-responders after a terror attack or other catastrophic incident.

Goodspeed's skills are slightly different from another conference speaker, Ben Milne. As an online entrepreneur and CEO of online payment company Dwolla, Milne was happy to come and share an explitive-filled lecture to the audience that numbered in the dozens, many of them wearing suits.

"It's extremely unique," Milne said of the conference, adding that the reason he comes is because of the shared concerns between national security and online business.

"You all kind of want to be able to recognize the bad person. Everything from identity theft to identity protection to data protection to anybody who deals in critical data has to deal with all of those problems and then they have to figure out how they analyze it, respond to it and report on it. So there's a pretty complex flow but everybody who handles every point of that flow is obviously in the room."

Throughout the day, a computer engineer sat in the back row, listening to the speakers, fingers flying on the keyboard as a screen at the front of the room shared what he was seeing on computer screen. As the speakers mentioned projects, or weaknesses in security structures, or even the names of groups that had known involvement in security breaches, Scott Stevson, a forward-deployed engineer with government contractor Palantir, began creating links.

It soon became obvious that what this man could do with a search engine was downright scary.

"In this case I'm actually using Google as my primary search interface because this instance of Palantir that I'm using isn't tied into what we would call an enterprise data set, meaning I don't have a feed of data that a customer has provided. I'm actually going out and using Google and using the help of an interface that we built that allows me to call a url and import into Palantir to create a document on the fly," said Stevson.

"You see me highlight people, relationships between them, and then I'm constantly publishing those results so if I was working with a team of other analysts, they could pull up that information as well."

The message at the end of the day was just how interconnected we all are on the Internet, and just how vulnerable anyone or anything is to cyber-bad guys. Most of the smart people tackling this issue agree on one thing however: there are no easy answers to keeping systems fully secure.

There are currently dozens of bits of cyber-legislation making their way through the process, prompting some to say we need to look at the problem differently if we are to find a viable and effective solution.

Jeffrey Carr is looking at the problem differently. He's just hoping someone is listening.

Filed under: Security Brief
soundoff (42 Responses)
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    April 10, 2013 at 12:13 am | Reply
  3. BS

    If it is really an operation to rescue a hostage, people would love to know about it afterwards. Why the secrecy? The enemy or "bad guys" apparently know the location, so why is the location undisclosed? It is only undisclosed to us who are not in the war. Maybe we are the real enemy? LOL.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Reply
    • Choco monster

      We should simply ban all Chinese IP addresses. What are commies doing on the Internet anyway? Shouldn't they be farming dirt? They don't need to talk to us or communicate with us in any way. Lets wall them off for human generations to flourish. They think communism is better? Prove it. Live by yourself, it's the only way.

      Communists think their system works because they are able to mooch off of Western innovation and culture. And they go "yeah see we can have modern stuff too." Yeah stuff they never would've invented in a million years.

      Ban all Chinese IP addresses, make the world a better place.

      February 22, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Reply
      • LOL

        Wow, a Nazi is pissssed off at communist? Whoever wins, the world will be a better place.

        February 22, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
      • Doh

        Ban all Chinese IP addresses? Stupidest idea ever. If you want on to a network, you'll get onto one... especially if you know what you're doing.

        February 23, 2012 at 7:19 am |
  4. Currenteventmaster71

    wow just wow

    February 22, 2012 at 9:27 am | Reply
  5. studdmuffins

    The latest fear memo from your friendly mass media which was fed to them by those who want the control. People read into this what they may then clamor for government to "do something." All to willing to fix a non-existent problem, in steps Uncle Sam's henchmen with plenty of solutions. Naturally, they'll need you to give up just a bit more freedom that they may protect you from this menace.

    The gullibility of people grows ever stronger year over year.

    February 21, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Reply
    • BlueWolf

      No threats out there? What universe of denial do you live in?

      February 21, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Reply
    • JimfromBham

      Why "clamor for the government" to do anything? The free market will create solutions faster that the government can react. Government regulation tends to be reactionary, and consequently inherently late to the party.

      February 22, 2012 at 5:44 am | Reply
    • Grey

      And apparently, so does their ignorance.

      February 22, 2012 at 7:57 am | Reply
  6. Deb Thomas

    Pacific Seafood Processors now opposed to Pebble mine

    This issue could fundamentally change the landscape and way of life in rural Alaska.

    ADN doesn't think it's front page news, I do.
    Read more here:

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    February 21, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      i like where your going with this

      February 23, 2012 at 9:31 am | Reply
  7. ksav

    Sorry government, as far as the citizens are concerned, "the rules governing what U.S. agencies can do in cyberspace are way too strict" is exactly the way it is supposed to be. As a naturalized citizen of these united states, I dare to say the governments' track record is not good when it comes to keeping out of citizens business under the guise of "national security". And as far as I'm concerned, I have no problem with the special ops to save our fellow citizens, but I do have a problem with an "official" whining about what a bunch of "bad guys" do after mission accomplished. It's been that way long before social media, and it will continue. Let 'em paint it anyway they want, but don't complain and say social media must be controlled by the government. I agree it's OK to protect your own portal, but don't use an example of military accomplishment for justification to gain control!

    February 21, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  8. Dan

    Sorry, it's not new. It's been going on for a good while.

    February 21, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Reply
  9. svann

    This article is low on info. Can we infer that the part about the kidnappers posting a faked picture of the results of the raid means that the US wants the ability to delete any online posting that it considers "enemy propaganda"?

    February 21, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Reply
    • Drowlord

      I interpreted it more as "They had a message (which was false) and it took us 3 days to offer a counter-message - by that time our rebuttal had little effect."

      February 21, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  10. katincal

    The U.S. is woefully behind in training it's people in Cyber defense. Very few colleges now offer degree programs in this field. My son for one will be majoring in this field and he could probably teach the class just on what he has taught himself. This country is so vulnerable to attacks that could totally cripple our defense systems, our utilities, and many other essentials of everyday life. Wake up U.S. and get on the ball here. Thank good some folks are beginning to teach our young about this. My son participates in the U.S. Cyber Patriot program for high school kids in the Los Angeles Unified School district. We need to expand these programs and start training our youth for the future.

    February 21, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  11. lol

    the REAL reason both the US government and media outlets want to control the internet with an iron fist is because of Independent media.

    They all have skeletons in their closet and are crapping their pants over it being aired. The fortune 500 control the main stream media and what we see/ hear and can comment on but have no such control over the net.

    February 21, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Reply
    • BlueWolf

      Here... You dropped your tinfoil hat.

      February 21, 2012 at 8:28 pm | Reply
  12. dreamer96

    If there is a knock at your door and you see a law enforcement member outside...just how many people would call the agency that sent first see if they did send that officer...and describe the officer before we even open the door and talk to them...answer their questions...If we back checked, through a different connection and pathway, or even phone line, any connection to a secure system and verified the connection, before we granted them access...we could stop a lot of internet hackers... and find and trace down the source of the attack...maybe even give them false information to keep them on the line while we back trace the connections...

    February 21, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Reply
    • You dun goofed

      You dun goofed
      I backtraced you
      the consequences will never be the same

      February 21, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Reply
      • dreamer96

        You're not the first so what...anybody could do that, and the people in charge around this hen house probably did that years ago...

        February 23, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  13. god

    The only "safe" computer is one that is turned off

    February 21, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Reply
    • dreamer96

      Or kept in a room, with no outside connections and shielded from the outside...and other steps taken...

      besides a computer turned off can be taken apart and the disk copied.,as a slave disk to a mobile system...or a transmitter installed... even the memory chips can sometimes be read for residual memory..magnetic effects of the last memory stored reading a magnetic tape that was poorly erased...or deleted hard disk data blocks..overwritten but still holding an echo, or shadow, of the old file's magnetic field of data.........

      February 21, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Reply
    • scott

      not necessarily

      February 21, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Reply
    • dreamer96

      God... I think Scott is talking about how networked computers can be turned on remotely over the net if they are still connected, and just shutdown,,power plug not pulled...if the right wake up message is sent over the network..and the computer network card is setup to boot on network commands...of course the remote user can then shutdown the computer after they are done too..

      February 21, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Reply
    • BlueWolf

      There is one other. One with no network connection, in a locked vault with 2 armed guards outside.

      February 21, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Reply
  14. dreamer96

    If systems are so secure, why are there so many security patches all the time?.Java security updates, Windows, Apple,Linux, Smart phones, Cisco..etc ...and these companies are pushing a cloud computer system long as we have to wait for a security attack to find the security holes we will lose each battle...just like 911 when even Donald Rumsfeld said there were 12 different sources of warnings about an attack like that inside the government, through intelligence networks,...and they were still ignored...John P. O'Neill was run out of the FBI by the very people that refused to listen to him..many still working in their jobs while ?John is dead,...and just how are those groups, and individuals, that issued those early warning,..just how are they doing many had their careers ruined after they made those warnings before 911...and after 911 must still be destroyed because they are too embarrassing to admit even existed...

    February 21, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Reply
    • Jim-Fed in DC

      Big Donald should know-most of those "never forwarded" warnings originated in DOD and stayed in DOD. No one on the civilian side were allowed to know about them until after the fact...Funny how they didn't dig any deeper into that during the 9-11 Comission Hearings isn't it?

      February 21, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
      • dreamer96

        Jim-FED in DC

        The DOD might have been protecting it's on projects...that is the trouble with remote views, men who stare at goats, radiomen, too...they can see stuff you don't want them too, and you have to tell them to shut up and don't talk about it...even when they found it by accident...too bad....The Pentagon stopped contracts with some contractors after Flight 800...let them get sold off.Some in the Pentagon were not happy with the flight 800 investigation, mad at Clinton.. The Clinton investigation began in the Pentagon..where employees have their phones calls monitored...even at home sometimes...Linda and Monica could have been subjects of Hypnotism at the Pentagon too...DOD uses Hypnotism...They say we can not make someone do something they do not want to do, using hypnotism, but Linda and Monica wanted to do that to Clinton...

        The FBI learned about them when they investigated the TWA Flight 800 explosion..James Kallstrom knew John P. O'Neill well help John get the job at the Twin Towers...they had dinner together the night before on September 10th 2001....The CIA knew and many of the alphabet soup of intelligence knew about the warning of planes as weapons, the fuel as a weapon, pilots programmed like an autopilot used to fly them....that warning was out before TWA Flight 800 exploded...

        February 21, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
      • dreamer96

        You Know computer viruses are programmer to reproduce, change their names, inflect as many computers as they can...the very early stages of making a software program that can analyze it's environment, and reproduce a new version of itself that is better at the core purpose, to infect, spread, attach a computers security systems...what a way to create the beginning of a new highly intelligent life in "The Terminator", "The Matrix", "I Robot","Ghost in the Shell, Project 2501", that Old Original "Star Trek" show with the human brain engrams.... The Unibomber was afraid of technology too...but he did not write a book...he should have...a lot of people would be better off if he had just written his book first, and not turned into a mad terrorist....

        February 21, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  15. WhatWhatWhat?

    Al Gore invented the Internet specifically for the purpose of allowing the US to spy on it's enemies. Google it!

    February 21, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Reply
    • steve

      hahahahaha, that's cute.

      February 21, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  16. Rich

    Oh God CNN security clearance section. Can someone get these ucks on SNL...

    February 21, 2012 at 10:51 am | Reply
  17. michaelfury

    "we at the U.S. government sit with our hands up our a–"

    So it would seem.

    February 21, 2012 at 7:44 am | Reply

    peace should rain.

    February 21, 2012 at 2:58 am | Reply
  19. mipolitic

    well we must shield our selfs from threats, however with that said , this opp is clearly open to abuse by the personnel for what ever reason they can come up with to use these assest for their own purpose.
    i am sure that this is a consideration at higher levels. the shield is a must , but picking out bad guys may be as hard as ever. the more info one has the more assests are required to filter the trash from true threats.
    the monatoring of contacts in public sector is a word apart from private and so on. so the common factor would be a filter station between point a to b, , could not the filter station become attacked which could result in all users be infected.
    i have really no clue about this stuff , but i can understand the basics i think. so what i am getting at is could this be as much or even worse on the virus end??
    this techno electronic stuff to me is a weak link because the person { operator } could introduce something unwanted?
    well any ways good luck, i do not have much faith in this stuff.

    February 21, 2012 at 2:50 am | Reply
  20. Iranacockuptheirass

    Man, She's Hot!!!

    February 20, 2012 at 11:48 pm | Reply

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