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Ex-NSA chief defends his profitable cyber-security business

Published time: August 06, 2014 10:05
Edited time: August 06, 2014 12:43
Former National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

Former National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

As the marriage between surveillance and non-governmental cyber-security firms comes under the spotlight, former NSA chief Keith Alexander fends off criticism of his new lucrative business, which he claims will revolutionize cyber-security.

Alexander, who recently announced work on a number of “game-changing” patents to propel cyber security forward, sees nothing improper in the practice, as he revealed in a Tuesday interview with the AP.

The former NSA head also stands to answer why he failed to share some of his groundbreaking ideas in his time as a government employee. But for Alexander, this seems to be a straightforward pursuit of doing business and making a living.

"If I retired from the Army as a brain surgeon, wouldn't it be OK for me to go into private practice and make money doing brain surgery? … "I'm a cyber guy. Can't I go to work and do cyber stuff?" said the man who for nine years had access to the nation’s most sensitive secrets.

The business was rumored to be bringing him a cool $1 million a month, but Alexander has brushed off the figure as inflated.

Wall Street gets former NSA chief to help banks create ‘cyber war council’

Explaining further why IronNet Cybersecurity is different to how the government uses information, Alexander said that the NSA only had authority to defend secret government networks, whereas his work will be focused on the private sector.

The tools and technical reach are at this point unknown, but "If it actually works, this will be worth a lot," he said of his new “behavioral model,” which purports to use sophisticated techniques to catch unconventional hackers.

Critics see a number of issues with Alexander’s new venture, IronNet Cybersecurity. Apart from the generally disliked idea of government officials cashing in on sensitive information learned and tools retained from public service, people worry that any type of access to sensitive information by private firms using high-tech tools is not good. Only recently there was a private sector initiative to pool top officials from eight US government agencies to create a council that would defend the banking industry from cyber-attacks.

NSA sued over fears that former director is selling secrets

Indeed, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIMFA), the Wall Street group that proposed the council, has retained Alexander’s services. That agreement and others have raised concerns among those who’ve said Alexander may be in the business of disclosing state secrets for any company with a budget big enough to afford his services.

Last month, The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence voted overwhelmingly to approve the new controversial cyber security bill – the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), which SIMFA endorses. Privacy advocates are naturally opposed to the legislation, which lawmakers have been trying to push through for years. They believe that codifying a program to share digital data between the government and private sector would open the private sector up to sensitive information pertaining to millions of Americans.

One scornful comment illustrating this came from the World Socialist Website’s Thomas Gaist, who says that “CISA clears the way for virtually unrestrained information sharing between the US government and corporations.”

The criticism is not unique to rights groups – government officials occasionally also voice concern.

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Fears of snoops having too much power over information have especially increased since former NSA-contractor Edward Snowden exposed just how vast the scope of information-gathering by the government really was – something that effectively ended the former national security chief’s career in March.

There is much about Alexander’s new business that he declines to comment on: the inspiration for the 10 patents being developed, who he partnered with, or the three clients his firm is already taking on. And he recently refused to disclose his finances to a journalist for Motherboard, who was researching Alexander’s new private business.

It is known only that the former four-star General’s ideas are not derived from anything related to his prior work either with the military’s cyber command or with the NSA.

Although Alexander’s move into private business has caused concern in some circles, he is traveling an already paved road, being the latest in a line of government, intelligence and security officials who go on to private sector work after an illustrious government career. Some examples include the first secretary for homeland security, Tom Ridge – he now has his own firm; the second homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, also has one; just as the NSA’s previous director, Michael Hayden, who now works with Chertoff.