Frances Townsend on American Cybersecurity’s Much-Needed Overhaul
When Frances Townsend talks, people listen — and when the former chair of the Homeland Security Council sounds the alarm about vicious cyberattacks on America, it’s critical to heed her words.
As far back as 2010, the top adviser to President George W. Bush was ahead of the pack investigating cybercrime. Today, with the constantly expanding threat of Russia dangling over the world, her words are more prescient than ever.
“The rise in cyberaggression against United States companies and state and federal entities threatens the reliability of critical infrastructure and economic systems,” she says. “There is no question that our economic and national security are inextricably linked.”
Fran Townsend has more than 20 years of public service under her belt. She’s worked in homeland security, intelligence, national security, and law enforcement. She’s focused on domestic and international issues, working closely with military and civilian organizations.
Frances Townsend’s background makes her an authority on security matters. For the past decade, she’s been raising awareness over the threat posed to the United States by cybercrime. According to Townsend, cybercrime is one of the most serious threats the country faces right now. For her, what makes matters worse is the inability of the United States to deal with such a threat.
“This ought to be part and parcel of the mission of the person who’s responsible for cybersecurity,” says Fran Townsend. “This is really, fundamentally a question of the will to solve it, because it can be solved. And that’s why it makes me mad. That’s why I’m frustrated by it.”
While the world prepares for imminent cyberattacks on the U.S. and its allies in the wake of the Ukrainian invasion, Townsend believes a public-private partnership is the only viable solution. “This is an area in which we want to invite the private sector in to help in the debate and conversation about what the policy ought to be and how we ought to implement it.”
The answer, according to Fran Townsend, doesn’t lie in “the government sort of pushing information out, which is kind of how the government thinks about public-private partnership. It’s about a real two-way street, a real dialogue.”
She understands the reluctance from the private sector, because they don’t want to be perceived to be “in some sort of an unholy alliance with the government.” If there’s information sharing, Townsend advocates for the need for clearly established rules. She’s acutely aware of the critical role the tech industry plays in the U.S., especially in states like Texas. “Tech has not only buoyed Texasʼ economy during the pandemic, but it has also contributed to strengthening Americaʼs national security and international competitiveness,” she says. “The security of our nation relies heavily on Texas’ ability to maintain a robust and flourishing technology industry.”
The kind of partnership Fran Townsend envisions is based on sharing intellectual capital. She believes such a dialogue needs to be had as soon as possible before it is too late.
Some experts believe Putin won’t strike the U.S. with a massive cyberattack for fear of reprisal. However, there’s no knowing what he might do if he feels like he’s losing ground, leading him to act irrationally. The safety of U.S. citizens rests on preparedness for any eventuality.
While the threat of cyberattacks has become more grave with Russia’s expanding aggressions, the possibility of cyberwar has been on Fran Townsend’s radar for years.
She sounded the alarm on such a threat back in 2010 in an interview with C-Span. A primary violation could impact the financial system, and a secondary, the transportation or electricity sector. Townsend fears that, despite the sophistication of the current U.S. financial system, the reluctance of private entities to share data with the government poses a real threat.
“I do think it is more likely that you’re going to see it from a state actor, if not an actual government,” she states.
The fears she cited in 2010 are not just anxious ponderings. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they’re tangible threats. Even before the ambush, Russia had stepped up cyberattacks against Ukraine, and had targeted Ukrainian banks and defense websites with a multitude of DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) bombardments. The cybercapabilities of Moscow are not a new threat; they have long been a cause for concern.
Though the Biden administration has considered potential responses to a cyberattack by Russia, some experts believe the U.S. isn’t adequately prepared for a full-blown cyberattack. Townsend urges lawmakers to collaborate with the private sector because that’s where the capability and infrastructure to deal with such aggressions lies. “While we have some capability in the federal government, it’s not as much as we need.”
There is no doubt the United States military can strike back in cyberspace. But critics say the problem lies in the inability of the United States to defend itself against such an assault in the first place. This underscores a primary concern — the reactive, rather than preemptive, attitude of the Biden administration. No one, says one former government official, is shouldering the responsibility for cybersecurity. “We need to impose some kind of mandatory solution because the pure market solution isn’t viable. The U.S. has been reactive and sidestepped cyber responsibility by simply grafting it on to existing government agencies, making each agency responsible for its own area,” the former general counsel of the National Security Agency, Glenn S. Gerstell, told The Guardian.
The first scenario she envisioned back in 2010 has already very much become a reality. “In July 2021, nearly two dozen towns across Texas were targeted, including several in north Texas, as part of a massive Russian-linked cyberattack, resulting in city officials and workers blocked from accessing local government computer systems,” Fran Townsend says
This is only scratching the surface of the imminent threat to U.S. cybersecurity. In May 2021, Colonial Pipeline, one of the most crucial pipelines in the U.S., suffered a ransomware attack. The hit was declared a national security threat, because the pipeline is responsible for moving oil from refineries to the industrial markets. This attack was conducted by DarkSide, a hacking group that operates from Eastern Europe or Russia.
Similarly, in early 2020, SolarWinds Corporation was subjected to a cyberattack from foreign hackers. SolarWinds is a large U.S. information technology company and officials believe the hackers were Russian. This raid allowed hackers to spy on private companies, making highly sensitive information vulnerable. It’s believed that the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation (SVR) is responsible for the assault.
Townsend declares immediate steps must be taken to prevent such onslaughts from occurring in the future. “America’s ability to innovate and maintain our global technological edge will be crucial in the fight against rising cyber hostilities from foreign adversaries.”
According to a recently conducted analysis, 74% of all illegal gains in 2021 from ransomware attacks went to hackers linked to Russia. These groups largely operate on Russian forums and are usually connected to Evil Corp, a Russian hacking group wanted in the U.S.
It is no secret the Russian government continues informal engagements with these hacking groups. In exchange for security services, these hackers are given the freedom to strike foreign entities, especially in the West.
Frances Townsend believes aggressive action has to be taken to avoid calamity. “My greatest fear,” she says, “and look, I hope I’m wrong. My great fear is we’re not going to see real progress in this area until there’s some sort of cataclysmic 9/11-type cyberevent.”
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