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Politics keeps the U.S. from securing private-sector networks, says former CIA chief Robert Gates

Patrick Thibodeau | Oct. 20, 2016
US has the technological capabilities to help protect private-sector networks.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- A person who had access to the nation's deepest secrets, Robert Gates, the former CIA chief and U.S. Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011, is a lot more open in retirement.

Gates had the crowd at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo laughing over his observations about IT and applauding at some of the things he believes in.

On stage here, for instance, Gartner analyst Richard Hunter fired off questions, asking at one point whether Edward Snowden, the former security contract employee who in 2010 took thousands of classified documents, was a "traitor or hero?"

"Traitor," said Gates, prompting applause from the audience of IT managers, who routinely deal with their own insider and outsider threats. As the applause faded, Gates added: "And he hasn't been given sanctuary in Russia for nothing."

Gates, whose military career extends back into late 1960s, regaled the audience with some ancient technological stories.

For instance, before the era of digital photography, the U.S. sent satellites with cameras and Kodak film to take photos. Once the film was used up, the satellite would eject a film-bearing capsule, which deployed a parachute on its way to the Pacific Ocean.

It was the job of the pilot of a Lockheed C-130 Hercules to use a hook to capture the capsule before it hit the water. "Woe to the pilot who missed the canister," said Gates, to audience laughter.

When digital photography arrived in the 1970s, the intelligence agencies faced new problems, namely managing and analyzing the volumes of data. Problems of this sort helped propel IT spending by the Defense Department, sometimes to dead ends.

"I have wasted more taxpayer money on IT than anybody in history," said a smiling Gates to an applauding audience.

On a more serious note, Gates argued that the U.S. has the technological capability to help protect private-sector networks, but policy disagreements and politics are preventing it.

Gates divided cyberthreats into four areas. There is the collection of data for national security purposes, which the U.S. has been doing since the Civil War when it tapped into telegraph lines.

The second threat is acquiring information for economic advantage. There are two dozens countries that do this, said Gates. "Until the Chinese really got busy at it, the best in the world probably were the French."

But Gates said the U.S. and U.K. do not engage in this type of economic spying. "We do not collect information to advantage our domestic companies," he said.

The third area is simple cybercrime, and the fourth is technology as a defensive weapon, such as disabling networks and denial-of-service and other attacks.


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