US cyber chief says ‘cyber bullets’ are part of war on hacks

Executive Office of the President of the United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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Chris Strohm Bloomberg News (TNS)

The U.S. government should be prepared to fire “cyber bullets” in response to significant hacking attacks as part of a comprehensive strategy to dissuade adversaries, National Cyber Director Chris Inglis said.

President Joe Biden has been receptive to proposals to use cyber weapons in retaliation against adversaries, among other options, Inglis, a former deputy director of the National Security Agency, said at an intelligence conference Tuesday in the suburbs of Washington. He is the first to hold his Senate-confirmed position at the White House.

“There is a sense that we can perhaps fire some cyber bullets and kind of shoot our way out of this,” Inglis said at the conference, hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance and the nonprofit group AFCEA.

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“That will be useful in certain circumstances,” he said. “If you had a clear shot at a cyber-aggressor and I can take them offline, I would advise that we should do that so long as the collateral effects are acceptable.”

Inglis cautioned, however, that specific attacks aren’t going to be sufficient to deter the leadership structure that enables hackers.

“There’s a larger set of initiatives that have to be undertaken,” he said. “Not one of those elements is going to be sufficient to take this thing out.”

In one of the best-known cases, Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin against ransomeware attacks during a June 16 summit that came after several high-profile moves by criminal hacking groups linked to Russia, including one targeting Colonial Pipeline Co. that upended fuel supplies along the East Coast.

The U.S. should make clear to Russia and other adversaries what kind of attacks would prompt a response, such as those aimed at critical infrastructure.

“Red lines are both good and bad,” Inglis said. “Red lines are clear and crisp.”

He said U.S. responses, including ones carried out to date, aren’t always going to be known to the public.

“The government’s actions aren’t always going to be broadcast,” he said. “In some cases it’s not helpful to broadcast those for all of mankind to see.”

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