Details of “Einstein” cyber shield disclosed by White House

Friday, March 5, 2010 - 5:30pm

The Obama administration lifted the veil Tuesday on a highly-secretive set of policies to defend the U.S. from cyber attacks.

It was an open secret that the National Security Agency was bolstering a Homeland Security program to detect and respond to cyber attacks on government systems, but a summary of that program declassified Tuesday provides more details of NSA’s role in a Homeland program known as Einstein.

The current version of the program is widely seen as providing meager protection against attack, but a new version being built will be more robust–largely because it’s rooted in NSA technology. The program is designed to look for indicators of cyber attacks by digging into all Internet communications, including the contents of emails, according to the declassified summary.

Homeland Security will then strip out identifying information and pass along data on new threats to NSA. It will also use threat information from NSA to better identify emerging cyber attacks.

NSA’s role is a careful balance because of the political battles that ensued over the agency’s role in domestic surveillance in the George W. Bush administration. Declassifying details of the NSA’s role, in a program initially developed during the Bush administration and continued in the Obama administration, will likely ignite new debates over privacy.

The White House’s new cyber-security chief, Howard Schmidt, announced the move to declassify the program in a speech at the RSA conference in San Francisco–his first major public address since assuming the post in January. He said addressing potential privacy concerns was one of the ten initial steps he planned to take. “We’re really paying attention, and we get it,” he said.