Friday, November 18, 2011

Security: Terrorists, Spies, and Hackers - The New National Security Landscape


Director Robert S. Mueller: Cyber thieves in Eastern Europe drain bank accounts in America. Spies steal industry secrets and sell them overseas. And alone in their bedrooms, disaffected youths become radicalized by Internet propaganda and vow to wage jihad.

It is difficult to remember a time when Americans did not have to worry about terrorists plotting violence on U.S. soil and criminals reaching through the Internet to target individuals, businesses, and government, but that is how drastically the world has changed since the 9/11 attacks.

“The horrific events of that day were the prelude to a decade of political, economic, and cultural transformation,” said FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, “and globalization and technology have accelerated these changes.”

The hyper-connectivity that helped spawn this new globalization is empowering “both friend and foe alike,” Mueller said this afternoon during a speech in San Francisco. “Today, our world can change in the blink of an eye. … If we in the FBI fail to recognize how the world is changing, the consequences can be devastating.”

Mueller noted that “terrorists, spies, and hackers are always thinking of new ways to harm us.” He provided examples of several recent cases (see sidebar) and outlined how the Bureau plans to stay ahead of these threats while remaining ever-mindful of protecting Americans’ civil liberties.

Regarding terrorism, al Qaeda has been weakened since 9/11, and dozens of attacks have been prevented. But “core al Qaeda operating out of Pakistan remains committed to high-profile attacks against the West,” Mueller said—a fact confirmed by records seized from Usama Bin Laden’s compound after his death. In Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has attempted several attacks on the U.S., Mueller added. And of particular concern are homegrown terrorists who may become self-radicalized online and are willing to act alone, which makes them difficult to find and to stop.

In the area of espionage, “nations will always try to learn one another’s secrets to gain political, military, or economic advantage,” Mueller said. And because “so much sensitive data is now stored on computer networks,” he added, “our adversaries often find it as effective, or even more effective, to steal secrets through cyber intrusions.”

And while state-sponsored cyber espionage is a growing problem, “it is but one aspect of the cyber threat,” Mueller pointed out. Hacktivist groups, for example, are engaging in digital anarchy, and cyber attacks against our critical infrastructure are a real possibility.

The FBI must stay one step ahead of these threats by gathering and sharing intelligence and continuing to emphasize our partnerships. “No single agency, company, or nation can defeat these complex, global threats alone,” Mueller said.

He also noted that the FBI needs the right tools to address evolving cyber threats, especially with regard to lawfully intercepting electronic communications from social networks. “Laws covering this area have not been updated since 1994—a lifetime ago in the Internet age,” Mueller said. “So we are working with Congress, the courts, our law enforcement partners, and the private sector to ensure that our ability to intercept communications is not eroded by advances in technology.”

While the Bureau must change to combat evolving threats, “our values can never change,” Mueller said. “The rule of law will remain the FBI’s guiding principle. In the end, we know we will be judged not only by our ability to keep Americans safe, but also by whether we safeguard the liberties for which we are fighting.”