NSA director: Cyber attacks need international norms

Originally published July 27, 2014 in The Aspen Daily News

Richard Ledgett speaks at 2014 The Aspen Security Forum

Nations around the world need to come together and establish international standards that regulate cyber attacks, said Richard Ledgett, deputy director for the National Security Agency at The Aspen Security Forum on Saturday.

There currently aren’t international norms governing cyber warfare, which could include attacks on public infrastructure like power plants. That is a dangerous situation, Ledgett said.

“It’s a very, very rich cyber threat environment,” he said.

During Saturday’s session at the Aspen Meadows campus titled “Security Challenges in the Ever-Evolving Cyber Realm,” Ledgett answered questions on the state of the NSA and the future of cyber threats from The New York Times reporter David E. Sanger.

China poses the greatest threat to the United States, in part because the Chinese government discloses intelligence collected by the government to commercial enterprises. The NSA doesn’t do that, Ledgett noted.

The NSA has been under heightened criticism from the public since Edward Snowden leaked classified documents more than a year ago to the press.

Dorothy M. Atkins/Aspen Daily News Richard Ledgett, deputy director of the National Security Agency (right), answers questions from The New York Times reporter David E. Sanger (left) during the Aspen Security Forum.

Since then, the NSA has seen “dozens of terrorists” use published information to change their cyber attack tactics, Ledgett said.

“When people say there are no damages with the disclosures, they are categorically wrong,” he said. “Our hope is that they’re not catastrophically wrong.”

Snowden had access to approximately 1.6 million classified documents, but it’s still unclear how many documents he extracted, Ledgett said.

Snowden used an inexpensive web crawler to scrape the government’s database. That wouldn’t happen today, Ledgett said, declining to elaborate on the technology the NSA is using to combat a similar attack.

“There are a lot of good lessons there,” Ledgett said.

As time passes, the information Snowden extracted becomes less relevant, because the NSA keeps adjusting its system in response to the leak, he said. That’s one reason why talking about Snowden and his actions are becoming more irrelevant.

“I would much prefer talking about things moving forward than talk about Edward Snowden,” Ledgett said.

When asked how the U.S. government can combat cyber attacks from teenagers and criminal groups, who naturally resist conforming to government policies, Ledgett responded, “The same way you eat an elephant. One bite at a time.”

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