July 27, 2012 at 8:39 PM ET
General Keith Alexander, head of the National Security Agency, addressed an audience at the Defcon hacking conference in Las Vegas Friday, saying the Internet needed fundamental defenses against foreign incursion.
It's the first time an NSA official has spoken at the world-famous conference, where the attendees are often engaged in unquestionably illegal activities like attempting to breach the security of government agencies. But General Alexander seemed to regard them as kindred spirits as well as experts.
"Sometimes you guys get a bad rap. From my perspective, what you're doing to figure out vulnerabilities in systems is great," he told the crowd, according to a report from CNET.
But it wasn't all civilities. Alexander said that the Internet as it is today is "at great risk from exploitation, disruption and destruction." Tracking Internet activity is a massive task and even the NSA can't do it without some kind of fundamental access.
He compared the Internet's traffic to a toll highway, and said he'd like the NSA to act as the monitor. Most traffic would barely be paid attention to, like a car with an "EZ Pass" cruising through without being stopped. But suspicious traffic would be identified and tracked.
As MIT's Technology Review points out, NSA has prototyped a version of an Internet monitoring system, with 17 defense contractors participating. If an internal alarm is tripped, presumably in the event of a breach, telemetry from the event is relayed automatically to the NSA. Alexander would like to see something like this applied more broadly.
Naturally an audience of hackers would be skeptical of giving a government agency such broad access to all the U.S.'s Internet traffic, but Alexander assured them that their interest was strictly to investigate threats from abroad. "Our job is foreign intelligence. We get oversight by Congress," he said, also taking time to say that recent reports that the NSA had a file on every American citizen were "absolute nonsense."
He also exhorted the audience of technically proficient hackers to get involved. With a tacit nod to the bumbling efforts of some legislators in regulating the Internet and security issues, he suggested that the Defcon attendees should be helping from the inside, not just taking pot shots at it from outside.
General Alexander is head of perhaps the largest and most invasive intelligence and security agency in the world, and whether it's despite that or because of that, his overtures to the hacking community seem reasonable. He and the occasionally lawless hackers may in some ways seem to be natural enemies, but as one hacker told MIT, when it comes to advancing the field of cybersecurity, "Our interests overlap."
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.