RSA 2016

US defense secretary talks offensive cyber-weapons and bug-bounty

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter
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US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter spoke last at the RSA conference after NSA Director Rogers and Attorney General Lynch because he was prepared for a more substantive dialog with the RSA Conference audience. He had real news to deliver, his opinion to share about encryption that is central to the FBI and Apple iPhone encryption dispute and innovation programs to pitch.

Carter is a different sort of Washington bureaucrat. A PhD in medieval history and particle physics from Yale with a second PhD from Oxford who was a Harvard professor of world affairs and held high level Department of Defense (DoD) roles during the Clinton and Obama administrations.

Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt to lead Defense Innovation Advisory Board

During an interview with Kleiner-Perkins partner Ted Schlein, Carter had important news to tell the standing room only crowd. The first headline was Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt will chair the newly formed Defense Innovation Advisory Board. Carter said: “Schmidt is the perfect choice because he knows the best technical minds who will join the board, travel to all our bases, meet our people and advise me on how the DoD can be more innovative.”

Hack the Pentagon bug bounty program

With the second news headline, he introduced the Hack the Pentagon program. The DoD has joined top firms like Google, Twitter and Facebook that pay cash bounties to security analysts who find holes in cyber-defenses. There is a catch though. Participants must be US citizens, register and pass a background check. Carter laughed at Schlein’s quip “why not hack the Pentagon, everyone else has” exposing his sense of humor.

DoD need sencryption without backdoors

The conversation between Schlein and Carter became even more interesting when Schlein asked about everyone’s favorite obsession; the contentious and high-profile struggle between the FBI, DOJ and Apple over unlocking one of the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhones. Carter would only say that “we should not let one case make such an important decision.” But after demonstrating that he had the technical chops to fully comprehend encryption and security he said he “didn’t believe in backdoors,” and then he said “speaking for the Department of Defense, data is critical and so is encryption, there is no point for us to buy all these planes and ships if we can’t connect them.”

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Carter spoke about innovating to find a solution around the encryption dispute. He said that innovation that allowed the sharing of data under the right circumstances and a working relationship between technology businesses and the DoD was preferable to the alternatives, the worst according to Carter was a law written by legislators who don’t have the skills to understand the problem.

Silicon Valley is a source of DoD innovation and culture change

Carter had two programs he wanted to sell. Both are bridge building programs between Silicon Valley and the DoD to acquire innovation and inspire culture technological change. The defense digital service program is a no strings attached program to attract talented people from the technology and cyber-security fields to bring new ideas and change to the DoD through short-term employment or project-oriented work to help the DoD adapt to the technology and innovation culture.

Like the defense digital service program, the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUX) program connects the DoD more closely with Silicon Valley’s innovation culture. Carter called the DIUX office at Moffet field a direct attempt to interface with the Valley with an open charter to simply make people connections and money connections. Carter strongly emphasized that the program was intended to facilitate the connection between innovative and talented people to help the tunnel through the DoD bureaucracy and connect them with DoD money. He also emphasized the X in the program name for experimental. It sounded like Carter was willing to pay for relationships that brought different types of thinking about using technology to solve problems into DoD and might produce an innovative product.

Offensive cyber-weapons to destroy ISIL and respond to attacks against the USA

US Cyber-command is using offensive weapons against ISIL. Carter said that he was looking at every way to defeat the terrorist force in Iraq and Syria including offensive cyber-weapons to disrupt ISIL’s command and control, make ISIL doubt the reliability of their systems, remove its ability to control the local population.

Carter views cyber-weapons as equivalent to any weapon at his and our enemies’ disposal. He said that “an attack on the United States, whether with a keyboard or bomb is an attack on the United States” which put nation-states with a history of using cyber-security against the US such as China on notice.

Of all the talks by members of President Obama’s cabinet, Carter’s contained the most content and fewest non-specific appeals for cooperation and partnerships.

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