Former NSA director defends data collection, cloud security

Gen. Keith Alexander addresses Gartner Security and Risk Management Summit 2014.

Former National Security Agency director Gen. Keith Alexander claims the media leaks by Edward Snowden about how the NSA conducts cyber-espionage have undermined national security .... and he ardently defends those NSA bulk collection practices.

But that was just one theme Alexander took up in his keynote address at the Gartner Security and Risk Management Summit here today: He's also bullish on cloud security and spoke about some experiences the NSA has had with it. Just retired from the NSA in March, Alexander has also set up a new consultancy called IronNet Cybersecurity.

Without mentioning former Snowden or any specific news organization, Alexander said the revelations about the tools and processes the NSA uses to conduct mass surveillance have had a "devastating" impact on national security. "It's devastating not only for our country but for Europe," he said, adding he thinks that Islamic militant terrorist organizations seem "to be learning from these leaks" and evading some detections.

He said the freedom enjoyed in the U.S. arises from the security provided by the military and law enforcement. "Freedom is not free," he said to the Gartner audience of security professionals. He also pointed out that it was the intelligence that NSA gathered related to the captured American mine-clearing worker in Somalia, Jessica Buchanan, that helped the Joint Special Operations Command rescue her from terrorists in 2011.

Alexander defended the NSA in the context of the Snowden leaks about NSA's collection of massive amounts of data abroad and the bulk collection telephony meta-data program domestically. He noted that Judge William Pauley last December ruled the domestic telephony meta-data collection program by the NSA to be legal and a tool against terrorism--and not a violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. And he noted that President Obama's administrative review group (which included the American Civil Liberties Union) has often opposed the NSA, found the NSA to be working within the rule of law.

Alexander said the NSA isn't out to read people's e-mail or listen to their phone conversations. "We're going after terrorists, our adversaries," he said.

Alexander also shared his enthusiasm for cloud computing.

"I think cloud computing is the way to go," he said. Experience that the NSA has had in adopting "thin virtual cloud" networks for some purposes had convinced him this could be a good model in terms of security. He said the main criticisms he's heard is that it might centralize data too much. But he hoped that security professionals would see the thin virtual cloud as a vision for network security in the future.

In terms of protecting the country from major cyberattacks, Alexander said there needs to be "a very public discussion" about how that can be done with the help from NSA, U.S. Cyber Command and other government entities. "Most of the systems that run this country are not government, they're industry," he pointed out, noting that if attackers launch major denial of service attacks or destroy data held in financial systems, for example, the consequences are severe for all. He advocated building international cooperation among nations to establish "norms" for security through an "alliance for secure cyberspace."

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