White House Details Thinking on Cybersecurity Flaws

The New York Times

In a rare insight into the government’s thinking on the use of cyberweapons, the White House on Monday published a series of questions it asks in deciding when to make public the discovery of major flaws in computer security or whether to keep them secret so that American intelligence agencies can use them to enable surveillance or an attack.

The discussion came not in a presidential policy directive or a speech, like the kind President Obama gave when describing the criteria for conducting drone attacks, but in a blog post on the White House website. The item was posted by Michael Daniel, the White House cybersecurity coordinator, and appeared to be distilled from a far more detailed classified document giving guidance to the National Security Agency, the F.B.I. and others who often exploit flaws in Internet security.

Mr. Daniel repeated the N.S.A.’s declaration several weeks ago that “we had no prior knowledge of the existence of Heartbleed,” a security vulnerability that created widespread fears that passwords or other delicate information transmitted by millions of computer users may have been revealed. But he acknowledged that the Heartbleed incident had cast a light on a balancing test the White House has until now declined to discuss in any detail: When should the government reveal flaws that it discovers, and when should it use them for its still-unacknowledged “stockpile” of flaws that would help it penetrate foreign computer networks?

It is a heated issue inside the N.S.A. and the Pentagon. The United States made use of four so-called zero-day vulnerabilities — flaws that had been known for zero days to the outside world — to attack and disable elements of Iran’s nuclear program in an operation called Olympic Games. The United States and Israel, which mounted that campaign, have never acknowledged their involvement, and most of the time such vulnerabilities are exploited for more routine actions, especially the interception of email or other Internet traffic.

But the intelligence agencies, along with the F.B.I., have argued that giving up a key weapon in that arsenal would amount to unilateral disarmament. The White House seems to agree.

“In the majority of cases, responsibly disclosing a newly discovered vulnerability is clearly in the national interest,” Mr. Daniel wrote, because of the need to keep Internet transactions, on which the world economy heavily depends, as secure as possible. “This has been and continues to be the case.”

But he spent the rest of his blog entry describing what conditions might lead to a decision not to publish the details of a flaw — perhaps for a short time, perhaps for much longer. “Disclosing a vulnerability can mean that we forego an opportunity to collect crucial intelligence that could thwart a terrorist attack, stop the theft of our nation’s intellectual property, or even discover more dangerous vulnerabilities that are being used by hackers or other adversaries to exploit our networks,” Mr. Daniel wrote, describing the review that has taken place at the White House in the past few months.

“This is an acknowledgment of the need to do offensive cyber, both espionage and attack,” said Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor who served in the Bush administration and has written extensively on the legal rationales for the use of cyberweapons. “What’s notable is that the White House has now agreed that these issues have to be considered at a higher level, that often it’s a hard call, and it’s not an issue that should just be left to the N.S.A. or the F.B.I.”

Mr. Daniel wrote that the administration has now “established a disciplined, rigorous and high-level decision-making process for vulnerability disclosure.” He did not say who would participate, or whether the hardest questions would be bounced to the president, much as he sometimes reviews the details of drone strikes or other covert operations that could have diplomatic implications. Mr. Daniel did not say who runs that process, but administration officials say it is largely directed by the National Security Council, and often by Mr. Daniel himself.

That group would weigh at least nine questions that Mr. Daniel enumerated.

The first was: “How much is the vulnerable system used in the core Internet infrastructure, in other critical infrastructure systems, in the U.S. economy, and/or in national security systems?” That seemed to suggest that a vulnerability that had potentially wide impact on the American economy, its utilities or the cellphone networks, for example, would be more important than one with narrow implications.

Another question for the group to consider, he wrote, was how much harm “an adversary nation or criminal group” could do with the vulnerability and whether it would be possible to know that such a nation or group was exploiting it. In the case of Heartbleed, the government was apparently unaware of the flaw, even though it had existed for roughly two years.

Other questions turned to the issue of whether intelligence agencies think the information is necessary, for surveillance or an attack, and whether there are other ways to get it. Among the most interesting questions on the list was this one: “Could we utilize the vulnerability for a short period of time before we disclose it?”

That suggests an option to allow the White House to split the difference between its intelligence needs and the principle of public disclosure.

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