Cyber security chief: Manipulation of data by hackers may be next threat

| Monday, Oct. 26, 2015, 11:56 a.m.

Computer hackers could do more damage than just stealing information they find online, the nation's top cyber security official said in Pittsburgh on Monday.

Computer thieves hit American companies daily, looking for trade secrets, bank account information and the inner-workings of operating systems, said Adm. Michael Rogers, who heads the National Security Agency and the U.S. Cyber Command.

“What happens when nation-states, groups, individuals no longer want to steal data (but) they want to manipulate data — and suddenly we can't believe what we're seeing?” Rogers asked at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Much of our structure is based on the whole idea of trust. If you log on, you can believe what you're seeing. ... (Manipulation) would be huge collectively for us as a nation, but more broadly, the world.”

Rogers spoke for 45 minutes to about 150 students, professors and others at Pitt's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. He later met privately with officials at the National Cyber-Forensics & Training Alliance on Second Avenue before speaking at Carnegie Mellon University's Gates-Hillman Center.

At Pitt, Rogers spoke broadly about online threats to the nation while calling the NSA a friendlier, more accountable intelligence operation.

He acknowledged that information leaks about the secretive agency have hurt its ability to track terrorists, criminals and foreign threats. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden released government files about the agency in 2013, leading to recurring news reports.

“I have watched us lose a measure of capability because I'm watching terrorist groups, No. 1, physically change the way they communicate as a direct result of what has been compromised,” Rogers said. “I would argue that's not a good place for us to be in as a nation right now.”

Another impact is that intelligence agency officials now are willing to appear in public and take questions, said Michael Kenney, a Pitt national security professor and researcher.

“This sort of event would not have happened before the Snowden revelations,” Kenney said. “It is a new world for the NSA and for U.S. government intelligence agencies. ... They realize they can no longer be in these protected silos that aren't interacting with the American public.”

Rogers started out by saying the public should trust the agency, and he interacted with people in the audience. He mentioned baseball, and as a Chicago native, he teased about the Cubs' post-season run.

That human touch seemed to be working, said Michael Spring, an information sciences professor who met with Rogers before the event.

“He's a thinking military officer who has children, who understands all of the issues, all of the concerns of the American people,” Spring said. “I think that for whatever reason, he's engaged in an outreach effort.”

The NSA follows the rule of law, Rogers said, but agency officials rarely can talk about what they do for fear of tipping off the nation's enemies.

“Now as a democratic nation, it's our right to argue about what we think about that law,” Rogers said. “Are we comfortable with that legal framework?”

The federal government must protect the free flow of information around the world, Rogers said. Encryption makes his job harder, but he said protected messages are in the best interests of the nation and the world.

Rogers addressed a report by The New York Times about Russian submarines and naval vessels operating near international undersea communications cables. Any activity near that kind of infrastructure raises concerns, the admiral said.

“We believe it is in the best interests of the world to have continuous free flow of information,” Rogers said. “... When we see potential activity around that kind of infrastructure, we stop and ask ourselves, ‘What is being done and why?' ”

The Internet has resilience built into it, but if Russian adversaries could cut enough of the right cables as an act of war, it would have a devastating impact on communications, Kenney said.

“That would potentially be devastating,” he said. “That's akin to a kill switch on the Internet.”

Andrew Conte is a member of the Trib Total Media investigations team. Reach him at 412-320-7835 or andrewconte@tribweb.com.

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