The federal government may be expanding its monitoring of online communications in the name of thwarting cyberattacks.


A top cybersecurity official at the Department of Homeland Security said in an interview with CNET that it's considering greater use of a federal technology that provides the department information in order to help prevent online attacks.

Called the Einstein technology, it's currently only used by federal networks, but DHS's Greg Schaffer said the government might expand its use to "critical infrastructure spaces" in the private sector. CNET's Declan McCullagh explains:

Not much is known about how Einstein works, and the House Intelligence Committee once charged that descriptions were overly "vague" because of "excessive classification." The White House did confirm this week that the latest version, called Einstein 3, involves attempting to thwart in-progress cyberattacks by sharing information with the National Security Agency. []

Earlier reports have said that Einstein 3 has the ability to read the content of emails and other messages, and that AT&T has been asked to test the system. (The Obama administration says the "contents" of communications are not shared with the NSA.)

The nature of the technology raises important civil liberties issues about government surveillance of Americans' private communications, which became a major national controversial during the Bush administration's wiretapping scandal. Federal agencies like the NSA were involved then, ad they are likely to be in his new endeavor.

But Schaffer said the technology can be used effectively to enhance cybersecurity without unlawful invasions of privacy.

"I don't think you have to be Big Brother in order to provide a level of protection either for federal government systems or otherwise," he told CNET.

"As a practical matter, you're looking at data that's relevant to malicious activity, and that's the data that you're focused on. It's not necessary to go into a space where someone will say you're acting like Big Brother. It can be done without crossing over into a space that's problematic from a privacy perspective," he added.

But it appears President Obama is taking steps to ensure transparent and accountable use of this technology by the government in beefing up cybersecurity, which the White House describes as "one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation."

At WhiteHouse.gov, he posted a declassified memo this week outlining the goverment's once-secret plans on how to use the Einstein technology.

White House computer security coordinator Howard Schmidt (and former Microsoft security executive) said in a conference this Tuesday that "[p]artnerships and transparency are concepts that have to go hand in hand" when it comes to computer security, the Washington Post reported.

"There are a lot of legal issues about what we’re doing," he admitted at the conference, according to Wired magazine. But he said the government is systematically working to address the legal concerns with the program and will not spy on Americans.

"We will preserve and protect the personal privacy and civil liberties that we cherish as Americans," he said.

Ideal use of the technology, according to CNET's Declan McCullagh, would "help less-prepared companies fend off cyberattacks, including worms sent through e-mail, phishing attempts, and even denial of service attacks."