Gen. Keith Alexander, the commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, today bluntly addressed widespread cyberattacks hitting major corporations and the damaging loss of intellectual property being harvested from their computer networks.
"From my perspective, this is huge," Alexander said at a symposium sponsored by the computer security firm Symantec. "When we look out there - the companies that have been hit - you look across the board: Everybody's getting hit.
"In 2012, just some of them - Nissan, MasterCard and Visa: That should make all of us concerned," Alexander said. "[In] 2011, RSA, COMODO, Epsilon, L-3, Sony, Citi, Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Google, Booz Allen, DigiNotar, Mitsubishi, Sony, Adidas - I had to bring that one in for our allies -Stratfor, Visa, [US] Chamber of Commerce.
"We see the biggest amount of theft going to intellectual property for most of these companies," he added. "And when you look at it, the theft that's going on hits in two directions, either directly hitting the company that they're trying to steal the information from, or they're stealing the certificates and keys to get into that company to steal the intellectual property. Either way, they're getting it."
According to U.S. intelligence officials, in 2009 U.S. companies suffered losses of about $50 billion from their research and development efforts.
Alexander addressed a series of disruptive "denial of service" attacks on Wall Street and U.S. banks that have been going on since September. During a denial of service attack, computer systems are intentionally overloaded and become unable to function properly, often crashing a website or slowing it to a crawl.
He also mentioned a cyber attack against Saudi oil company, Saudi Aramco, that resulted in vast amounts of company documents and emails being digitally vaporized by a malicious computer virus.
"What we have is a huge concern: theft by crime, theft of intellectual property, and now disruption, destruction coming on these networks. And we've got to address that." Alexander said.
The destruction of data could have massive implications for financial institutions and global stock markets, according to security officials. In 2008, then-Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell warned Congress about the threat in congressional testimony.
"Our experience to note that when people break into a network, they're often there for six to nine months before we detect them," Alexander told the conference. "Six to nine months, you're allowed to roam freely about that network. You own it. You can take all the intellectual property you want."
Ironically, as Alexander was addressing the Symantec Government Symposium, there were reports circulating that a hacking group called Hack the Planet had allegedly hacked into Symantec's network and compromised a database of more than 3,000 Symantec employee e-mail addresses and passwords.
Symantec, in a prepared statement said it was aware of the claim.
"We take each and every claim very seriously and have a process in place for investigating each incident," it said. "Our first priority is to make sure that any customer information remains protected. We are investigating these claims and have no further information to provide at this time. "
Describing the Internet traffic and infrastructure that creates the cyber domain, Alexander addressed privacy concerns as he advocated a way for the private sector and the government to come together to work on cybersecurity issues.
"The government is not looking at the traffic; industry's looking at the traffic, and they have to do that to own and operate these networks. We're going to help them with signatures and other things," Alexander said, addressing the issue of identifying when companies have become vulnerable. "They need to tell us when they need our help. But it's got to be done in time for us to help."
Following Congress' failure to pass cybersecurity legislation this year, according to federal officials, a draft executive order being circulated by the White House would allow intelligence agencies, including the NSA, DHS and the FBI, to share information about cyber threats with critical infrastructure entities such as water plants, the energy sector and financial institutions.
In his remarks today, Alexander also addressed the need for education of the public on issues relating to cybersecurity.
"Most of the people do not technically understand the network and what we're talking about," he said. "And so there's a lot of paranoia out there. You know, we have to help them understand - everyone understand in the United States and our allies - actually what we mean by operating in cyberspace a secure area where we protect our civil liberties and privacy. We can do both."