Today is December 18, 2014, and we are here at the West Point Center for Oral History with Colonel Greg Conti. Welcome, sir.
It’s my pleasure to be here.
Before we get started, can you please spell your last name for the transcriber?
C-O-N as in November, T-I.
Thank you very much. Well, let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell us something about yourself, where you’re from?
Well, I grew up in the Hudson Valley, so West Point was always looming large on the Hudson River, and I’d say I consider myself a hacker of the old school, going way back. And for the record, I would say I use that term not as a malicious hacker that breaks into things, but someone who likes exploring technology and pushing it in directions the designer did not intend.
And can you tell us your current assignment right now?
Currently I’m Director of the Army Cyber Institute at West Point, which is a new entity that was created about two and a half years ago by the Chief of Staff of the Army,
the Secretary of the Army, and Commander, U.S. Cyber Command, and Commander, U.S. Army Cyber Command.
With that as our end state, let’s work backwards—
A little bit, and start from a younger Colonel Conti, growing up in the Hudson Valley. What year did you graduate from West Point?
I graduated in 1989, studied computer science. And what I find interesting is my class, ‘89, is the last class to not be issued computers, so it was the class of ‘90 that was first issued computers. They were Zenith 248s, 8286s, I believe, and what I would do as a cadet, because I didn’t have a computer and I was a computer science major, there were plenty—this was a newfangled technology at the time. Many people didn’t use their computers.
So I would rent one from a class of ‘90 person for $50.00 a year or something.
And as it turns out, we would later find out, Moore’s Law, that renting a computer for a couple of years, a $2,000.00 computer for $50.00 a year until it was no longer useful anymore. For the three years it was quite helpful.
You’ve used Moore’s Law in other contexts. I wonder if you can just take a second and define what Moore’s Law is.
So Moore’s Law is the general idea that the density of transistors on a computer chip doubles every roughly 18 to 24 months. And it’s held since the 1960s, and really had been an indicator of increases in computing power over that time, and what computers have been able to do. So basically it means that every 18 months or so you have a doubling capacity of what computers can do.
And oftentimes, a halving in the cost, so it’s fueling exponential growth, although currently we’re feeling like we’re getting at the end of the run of Moore’s Law.
Although that might change if there’s a new technology that can take it further, which has historically happened.
Speaking of historical events, for instance, West Point did not have an information technology major until relatively recently, although it did have a computer science major even going back to the ’80s. Was that something that was relatively new, or was that something that was established by the time that you became a Cadet?
The computer science major? It was established. West Point transitioned from everyone receiving effectively a general engineering degree, which I believe class of ‘86 or thereabouts was the last class, plus or minus, that did that. From that point forward, people could declare majors.
I think that was a major step forward.
And reflecting on your time as a Cadet, the 47-month experience, with the benefit of a long Army career and successful career and hindsight, how did your time as a Cadet prepare you for your future responsibilities, either leadership or Officership?
Well, I think the program here is actually very well thought out, and typically you don’t necessarily appreciate it as a Cadet. It’s something that as you graduate you draw back on the lessons learned. Like layers of an onion, you’re peeling layers back, and drawing more and more from that experience, everything from the courses you’re taught, the lessons you’re taught outside the classroom during the summers by your Tactical Officers, all of those things.
And then later on, you find yourself drawing upon those, and even years later I’m finding that it’s that network of contacts from that time.
Years later, it’s a strong bond, and it gives you people that you can reach out to, and help the Army move forward in a way that would be more difficult if you weren’t connected that way.
Another sort of network.
It’s another network, yes.
Your path from West Point to being the Director of the Army Cyber Institute has had a variety of different assignments. Can you take us through a couple that were particularly either meaningful for you, or significant in the development of your career?
Sure. My first assignment was to Fort Stewart, Georgia, the 24th Infantry Division. I was there for six months. I branched Military Intelligence, and was there for six months.
And Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and we immediately deployed and went over. It was a very stressful time because he was poised, could’ve invaded Saudi Arabia. We were literally unloading tanks in the port. If he had decided to keep going south into Saudi Arabia with only the 82nd going against multiple Armored Divisions, it would’ve been a battle for the history books, the fighting from the port.
It was a very stressful time, but it was a condensed learning experience that seven months I was in the combat zone pushed you in ways. You lived, breathed the Army in a way that you never get on a normal garrison schedule. From there, I’ve always been—like I said, I’ve always considered myself a hacker, and fascinated by technology and computing. I was always trying to steer towards that in my career. I had a break at the Advanced Course—which is now the Captains Career Course—that I wanted into this area as close as I could get.
I was able to get into a program called National Systems Development Program, which allowed me to get to Fort Meade and study signals intelligence in depth. I did a full set of assignments there. It’s kind of a closed community, so once I was in, I really felt like I had found an area where I could really contribute and what I could do would be appreciated. And that led to a next assignment, which was Company Command and Deputy Division Chief at another place in England, so it was a really nice follow-on.
I’d always wanted to come back here to West Point because this is one of the few places, at least at the time, in the Army where you could do what is not being called Cyber. I had started a Master’s at night at Johns Hopkins. The Army let me spend a year finishing it up full-time, and then came and served on the faculty at West Point.
At that point I ran into Dan Ragsdale, who was running the Information Technology and Operations Center, and really laid the groundwork for the Information Security Program we have today. He inspired me, rolled me into his efforts.
I went to DEFCON, which was a hacker conference in Las Vegas—really a game-changing experience for me. I really liked what I was doing. Applied to come back, and was accepted to go get a PhD. I went to Georgia Tech, which has a real solid information security program, and then applied for a permanent position called Academy Professor—allows us to stay here for long-term. Upon return, I went to quickly became director of the ITOC, which became the Cyber Research Center, which is focused on information security, and led that from 2007 till 2014, just a couple months ago.
And then finally in 2012, we were minding our own business, and we received a note that came down from the Chief of Staff of the Army, and I was informed by General Trainor—we were in the library—had me sit down, and said, “Okay, the Chief of Staff of the Army wants to create the Army Cyber Institute at West Point.” And I was charged with doing that, and EECS and I helped incubate it since June of 2012. It was dual-hatted as CRC Director and ITOC Director—I’m sorry, CRC Director and Army Cyber Institute Director, and then transitioned to full-time Army Cyber Institute Director late September 2014—so just a couple months ago.
It seems like everything has pushed you on this path, and the culmination is a very positive one. You couldn’t have seen that, of course, in 1989, where you mentioned that you branched Military Intelligence when it would have been possible to branch Signals as well.
Can you take us through that decision process?
Well, at the time, you’re making decisions based on a relatively small sampling of information as a Cadet, and oftentimes Cadets will have role models or mentors that they gravitate toward to make those decisions. At the time, I didn’t even really know that Signal Corps was a place where you could do computing. I think that West Point does a better job of communicating that today, learning about the branches. I’d done a summer experience with the Air Defense Artillery and had a really positive time, and there was the Air Defense Artillery Officer here in the Department of Military Instruction was very—I really liked him.
So I listed Military Intelligence, which I just thought would be the neatest thing to do, followed by Air Defense Artillery. And I believe Signal Corps was my third choice.
I don’t regret it. It turns out that the things that really attracted me to computing, the idea of information security was really vibrant in signals intelligence, and I was able to put those skills to work in places like NSA that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
Can you describe in an unclassified way what you mean when you put skills to work?
Well, I can say that NSA has two main missions. It’s kind of a well-known collection mission, and a defends-the-network mission, and it’s a community that respects technical expertise. So when I first showed up there in 1994, I found an environment that truly respected the skill set that I had, and an environment that would allow me to develop my skill set further. For example, they had a robust self-paced learning program,
that frankly I think the Army still is—you know, as we build this Cyber branch that we’ll probably get to later in the discussion, you could literally on your desktop continue your work.
So I spent, I don’t know, eight hundred hours over my two and a half, three years there, doing off-duty hours development, taking different courses and things like that, because it was a very fertile environment for those things.
You mentioned the significance not only of the Army Cyber Institute but of the Cyber branch as a distinct branch from Signals and MI. Yeah, I think now would be a good time to go into that. What was the need for that? What was the impetus?
Well, I think the need from the Army perspective is they needed expertise in these areas, people who could perform offensive cyber operations and defensive cyber operations,
and that your typical Army career paths weren’t conducive to that. The typical Army career path has a very well-mapped track of leadership development experiences, assignments that you’re supposed to follow. And if you were able to, lucky enough to get into a cyber-type assignment, it would really be for one tour. And if you tried to get two and were able to—and typically you had to fight very hard to stay to do more than one—it really was potentially a career-ender to do so.
So I see then—so you fast-forward to the present, and I know many people—taking a step back, I know many people that fell by the wayside because they were really passionate about doing this work. But the larger—and I would joke the immune system of the Army would kill off cyber people, because it was foreign, it was different.
So that kind of mindset, righting the ship and helping create a path that allowed people to go through 30 years of development, length of college degrees, you know, for pre-commissioning, straight into a career path for 30 years, that would be game-changing.
I would look at—I served with General McCaffrey, who’s the Division Commander of the 24th Infantry Division, during the Persian Gulf War, and he knew everything. To a Second Lieutenant, he knew everything. And he would get in front of his staff, and he’d ask them the best questions, and had them kind of squirming sometimes because they didn’t have the answers. And I came away truly impressed with what 30 years of development can do, and the Army’s quite good at that for Division Commanders.
My goal, then, was to think through how do we do that 30-year development for people in Cyber, ’cause that’s how you grow a truly professional world-class force?
You mentioned that you went to Georgia Tech—
And received a PhD. Is that part of what can be expected in terms of growing Cyber leaders—some sort of advanced education, and if so, in a STEM-type discipline?
I think what’s expected of Cyber leaders is continual learning, a passion for the discipline, because if you just rely on the traditional Army model, which is quite good, that you’d go to school for six months to a year, do an assignment, you know. And then go as a Captain, you spend six months to a year getting more schooling, and then another three to four, five years, and go to the Commander General Staff College.
Really robust programs—unfortunately, they are insufficient to keep up with Moore’s Law.
The technology’s changing so fast that I struggle to keep up, and I love this stuff. So I spend almost every waking minute working on this area, because it’s what I do, and so I think that’s a requirement. Going back to your question, where we’re trying to get with the branch is that fundamental training as a baseline, and that’s really the minimum standard, and then finding people that are passionate about this, that will then drink deeply from the well, and help feed that, whether it’s allowing them to take additional training along the way at various points in their career.
But also people that’ll go home, will build networks at home, will read books, will write papers, will watch the movies about this, and will just continue their development.
And importantly, read current events and developments in technology. I think you’ll see graduate school at least to the Master’s level be part of that. A PhD, we’re still sorting through what that means, because you want to use that skill set wisely, and it’s a long time away from the larger force.
In hearing you describe drinking deeply from the well—
Really having a passion, maybe now would be a good time to talk about the future of the Cyber branch. You just returned from an Assignment Branching Board trying to consider what the next talent pool’s going to look like, and it sounds like you’ve described several of those attributes. Is that a fair statement?
And if so, what do the next branch of junior, or the bunch of Second Lieutenants, look like?
I think that is a fair assessment. We’re looking at people who are passionate about technology, that are self-learners, that have the ethical foundation so that they won’t abuse the skills, the powerful skills that they’ve learned and will continue to learn. I think it’s also important to have an adversary—the ability to have an adversary mindset. It’s something I learned in Military Intelligence, that as the 2, as the Intel Officer, you need to be able to project yourself on the adversary you’re facing, get in their head, and figure out how would they respond to this, and then predict what that’s going to be, and you get good at that.
It’s the same thing. You need to think like a hacker to say, “How would I break into these systems?” and then defend against it.
I think we do a good job of that here with the Cadets. Frankly, what we’re talking about is just my anecdotal experience in what those attributes are, and we’re trying to do research to formally define what those are, what those should be, and then share them. Because ultimately it can’t be a “we’ll know it when we see it” model—we need to define it, so then we can tap the full power of Human Resources professionals to then help us identify them, or at least prescreen those folks.
So one of the things we’re working on is to define what that should be.
Perhaps you’ve hit everything, but if not, how should young people, maybe even pre-Cadets, maybe folks, high school students or students in a Junior ROTC program, or anything, even the Boy Scouts.
You know, if they want to be the Director of the Army Cyber Institute 25 years or 30 years from today, what would you encourage them to do? Where would they start?
Well, I would say not to shy away from technology—not to shy away from studying hard subjects in school. And things like mathematics are progressive, so if you kind of aren’t committed to it early on, you’ll find yourself behind, you know, continually. So that would be one, not to shy away. Male or female, you need to be interested in that and dig in and put the effort in. It does get easier. You get beyond the kind of fundamentals into what I consider much more fun aspects. And I think leading.
I think programs like the Boy Scouts, seeking out leadership positions in school, trying to behave in an ethical way, all of those things are important. I think coding, learning to program early is helpful, because much of the world is run by code. In the Army historically it’s all been a very human activity, but increasingly, aspects are becoming more and more automated. It’s really this human and machine symbiosis that occurs, and I think over time, we’re going to see more and more aspects—that there’s going to be increasingly more automated pieces.
Think robots on the battlefield, automated weapons systems like the Phalanx systems on the ships, where you’ll just have a human in the loop—or human on the loop to monitor what’s going on. So those things you can do in school to help prepare you for that, that kind of world, would be a powerful way to start.
You’ve mentioned ethics twice. Certainly, when you say hacker you were quick to note the good kind, and we often hear of hacks in malicious terms. Is there something distinctive about the cyber domain that requires a special emphasis on ethics, or are there distinctive threats or temptations or lures that would tempt young people in ways that maybe we wouldn’t want them to go?
I think so. I mean you have a great deal of power that can be vested in a single person in terms of cyber capabilities and what you can do with that. If misused, that can be dangerous.
When I think of a Private with a rifle on the battlefield, the worst they can do is, you know, shoot into the sector next to them by accident or something. But in terms of what a rogue service member could do, it could resonate around the world. They could accidentally shoot the wrong country, if they’re not careful.
There’s second and third-order effects that are very subtle in terms of, you know, cyber operations that can be very damaging to national security—could quickly become an international issue. We’ve had—but at the same time—so that’s the concern. But at the same time, you want people to have that playful aspect and explore technology, and West Point isn’t exactly known for its open mindset with such things. So one thing we did is we built actually a couple of labs that are air-gapped—that means they’re not connected to the Department of Defense network—that will allow people to explore technologies in ways.
It’s a safe place to explore really potentially dangerous technologies, and have their fun using these tools without, you know, attempting to do so on Department of Defense networks, which is a bad thing.
How do you envision the Army using, or how would I say it, using, maneuvering, exploiting, existing in cyberspace in the future?
Well, I mean that’s the question, right? You’ve got—I tend to think of cyberspace and the DoD recently declared cyberspace as an operational domain, alongside air, land, sea, and space. But it has unique characteristics. It’s man-made, in particular. The laws of physics apply, sort of.
I mean fundamentally, surely they apply. But at the same time, many attributes of that space are man-made and controlled, so you can kind of define half the laws of physics, how it behaves. Our adversaries can do the same.
Commercial technology, commercial off-the-shelf technology races ahead of what the Acquisition and Procurement systems do. I mean some of those programs are two to ten years long, so our adversaries can be very agile. So amidst all that, I think in terms of planes. You’ve got a geographic plane where kinetic warfare has occurred, and all those rules still apply. But now you have a cyberspace plane on top that interacts with the two, so you can have operations ongoing in cyberspace and engagements, and then engagements going on in the physical world, and synchronizing those and allowing, you know, to support objectives on the ground.
Ultimately trying to defeat an adversary or change their will, overcome their will, and behave as you’d like them to behave.
There’s a lot of terminology. You mentioned offensive cyber operations, or OCO, defensive cyber operations, DCO, networks, domains. You hear most often people talking about active defense as distinct from either a reactionary defense or an offensive capability. Can you help us understand where we need to place the majority of our emphasis on, if these terms are even the right ones?
Well, I mean we’re creating this from scratch in many ways, all these. Traditional military doctrine is well-established. It dates back hundreds and hundreds of years, and it’s highly refined.
Really what we’re doing is creating something from scratch, and trying to figure out how you fight conflicts in cyberspace, so really we’re defining as we go. And Moore’s Law in particular is challenging, because it isn’t—like the evolution of a traditional military doctrine is every five to ten years, maybe, we relook it. But cyberspace, it changes so quickly.
New technology could appear that’s game-changing and needs to be adapted very quickly. So specifically in terms of computer network defense, as it stands today, much of it comes down to what you’re legally allowed to do. And you are legally allowed to – I am not a lawyer. I am not a lawyer, for the record.
You’re legally allowed to do more on your own network that you control, both in terms of the laws of physics that you can define, as I mentioned, but legally, you have greater authorities to operate and do certain things.
Part of it is you have potentially a god-like ability to look into your own networks and find adversaries and hunt down adversaries in your networks, the hunt mission. But the more responsive, active defense could involve really a spectrum of activities. Maybe some would say it could be hacking back—someone attacks you, you attack back, and so you’re basically responding in kinds. It could be crafting the network that there are trip wires and sensors in various places.
You could have documents that, once stolen, beacon back home.
And these are all unclassified examples. So creatively, since you own that train, you can shape it, define it, to behave in ways that support your defense. It hasn’t been done previously, but it’s useful. I mean historically networks have largely been relatively straightforward and similar amongst wherever they were deployed. But now you can craft that domain to control it, make it more defensible, and then add mechanisms that allow you to be more aware of what’s going on, and shut down operations, or potentially attack back.
A classic problem, though, of attacking back, one, will the lawyers will largely say it’s illegal, and two, its attribution problem.
That an adversary might come in through the network through multiple proxies, and you have to walk that backwards to ultimately try and find the actors responsible, and even from there, you have to then find out, well, who? Are these actors acting on their own accord? Did someone put them up to this? Did a nation-state put them up to this, and they’re acting as a proxy for someone?
So it’s actually quite hard, because and it also ties back to whether it’s a law enforcement issue. If it’s an online criminal group, it’s probably a law enforcement issue. If it’s a foreign nation-state, then it’s a bigger issue.
It seems that you’ve described many ways in which cyber operations are distinctive from conventional operations. I wanted to just pause on your last comment about law enforcement versus, you know, large national mission forces, some that even involve the national command authority.
How can we conceptualize the threats? In a normal battlefield, you might have another sort of peer, as it were, in the conventional realms, but in the cyber realm, you could have a state-sponsored group of hackers, an independent group of hackers, a special interest group of hackers.
It seems the Army has so many different front vectors, not all of which are nation-states. How can we make sense of that?
Well, there’s actually been some I think pretty good thought in that space, and I’ll try and remember. I’m just taking some notes to make sure I approach it appropriately. The first is I think in terms of attack service. What is out there and what can be attacked, and then defending—you know, figuring out where the enemy is likely to go, the adversary is likely to go, and defending against it.
And that resides in the—I gave you two planes in terms of the physical plane and the logical plane, the cyberspace plane.
But really, if you think more closely about it, there’s the physical plane, where boxes and computer machines sit, tanks sit. Then there’s a physical plane which, for the people who’ve studied networking, it’s like the zeroes, the electrical impulses over the cabling and things like that. And then working up through the various types of software, the network layers, to the applications running, and then it keeps going up until you hit like the personas, the online identities of people. Then for example you might have three online identities.
If you are using Facebook, you could have three different user names and passwords to log into that social media site.
Then on top of that, there might be—there’s physical people behind those online identities, there are command and control structures behind those identities. So adversaries really can operate on any of those planes, probably multiple planes at the same time to do what I was mentioning before, the battlefields you’re trying to take in cyberspace, and you know, the physical space, and make them interact.
So adversaries are doing the same up and down that stack of planes. Much of what we see is asymmetric, too, because the bureaucracy—well, it torments me on a day to day basis. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It allows for efficiencies of scale that—it allows for efficiencies of scale that allow you to create large, powerful groups, and large numbers of people capable to do things.
However, it takes a long time to create that, to overcome the inertia and the friction that would make that possible. Our adversaries do not necessarily possess that friction.
They can quickly form, develop some code, take some existing code, and probably not constrained by laws all that much, operate very rapidly. And an example of that might be as a Lieutenant, a friend of mine was asked to—we were having a big simulation exercise, where the Division was fighting multiple enemy Divisions. And they chose a Military Intelligence Lieutenant to be effectively the Commanding General of the adversary corps that we were facing. And it turned out he beat the pants off us.
Effectively with one or two other people, he beat the pants off an entire Division staff and all the subordinate staffs, because his OODA loop—Colonel John Boyd from the Air Force described the OODA loop of Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act, which is basically your decision-making process. He was operating very, very rapidly. He could just look and decide, okay, I’m going to move this here, blam. For us to come to that same decision it might take two to three hours, and ran the pants off, and ultimately they had to stop the exercise and tell him to basically start losing.
We have that asymmetry going on today. And more specifically in terms of adversaries and their capabilities, there is a hierarchy that we understand today, that at the low end you have the lone or small groups of malicious hackers, and it goes up from there that you have, say, current phrase is hacktivist groups.
They might form around a given cause and do some sort of online activities. At a higher level, you have online criminal groups. Maybe you have terrorist groups, but although we’ve seen terrorist groups really being more interested in fundraising and spreading ideology than actually doing attacks.
But the online criminal groups have—you see increases in resources in terms of money and people they can throw at the problem. An online criminal group has illicit sources of income that allows them to perhaps resource what they do at a higher level. Then as you go up, you have potentially nation-state capabilities, smaller nation-states all the way up to large nation-state capabilities. Sometimes you see those nation-states helping actors further down, maybe to avoid attribution.
Or those less capable groups may care a lot less about doing something if they have the will, but they don’t have the capability, so if there’s a pairing between a nation-state and one of those groups, that’s particularly concerning. And then outside of that spectrum, some things we forget are that traditional spectrum—insider threat, that sometimes the enemy is us—we saw that with Edward Snowden and Private Manning—to a great deal, damage can be someone on the inside. I’d also think in terms of depending on how you define adversary that certain large businesses are quite capable.
And they’re collecting tremendous amounts of personal information on us from our search queries, emails we send, and really for the purpose of largely targeted advertising.
So you have all these actors in play.
You mentioned the insider threat, particularly Snowden and Manning, and of course their cause has been taken up, you mentioned hacktivists, then journalists, you know, documentary movie makers, and there’s a lot of noise about the U.S. government’s efforts in cyberspace. What would you say to people about the United States government operating in cyberspace? What do they need to know about the cyber mission force or the mission generally, and how can they make sense of all of the other competing inputs that they’re hearing based on the two events that you mentioned?
Well, so that’s actually quite a loaded question, and a challenging question.
I would say that I’ve seen on both sides of that question an intense amount of passion. On one side, you have folks that—it often can come down to the trade-off between privacy and security—that if you’re not careful, you can threaten the democracy which we’re trying to protect. I’ve been on both sides of that, and I see both groups absolutely believing what they’re doing.
I think the answer is probably dialogue and transparency when possible, trying to find solutions that there doesn’t have to be a trade-off between privacy and security in all ways. You can find solutions that increase privacy and increase security. I do know that the people in uniform are trying to provide security.
They’re very dedicated folks. They’re not glib about it, and they’re doing their best to do so, and it’s a very difficult time.
Because right now, I mean my understanding of the law is that you’ve got individual companies fending off, you know, adversaries, potentially nation-state level adversaries, and you have a military that’s charged to protect the nation—they’re wanting to help accomplish that mission. It’s difficult. It’s very difficult, because if you’re not careful, you can challenge, you can undermine our freedoms while trying to increase security, or trying and may or may not be actually succeeding, in increasing security.
You’ve been doing things cyber before they were perhaps called cyber, for over 20 years, in uniform.
I wanted to ask you about your perspective on the evolution of cyber as a threat, or as a domain. How has cyber changed, cyber operations—how has that changed over the course of your career as a Cadet, or as a Commissioned Officer?
Well, like you said, a lot of this occurred, a lot of the development occurred before we really understood the full potential of what it could bring, and I won’t claim we understand the full potential today. But I think we have a much greater understanding. So it was an evolution, and at first, people raced to build great new things with the technology that was available. Security was an afterthought. It really wasn’t an issue early on.
And by the time we became increasingly dependent on it, where we are today, we’ve built fragile houses of cards that are often hard enough to keep working on their own, let alone when there’s a determined adversary trying to break them or knock them over. As far as I see it maturing, that much of what was probably initially done was building and operating like I said, and designing new technologies, and there have always been intelligence collection activities. I think you’re seeing more and more public face of that.
The intelligence community has always been kind of hampered in the game to tell their story, because much of what they do is classified and it only comes out years and years later. I see a maturing in terms of a career path forming, a cyber mission force forming—a recognition of the types of people that we want to grow and nurture, and not kill off by the system.
All of that I see happening, so it’s an exciting time.
Let’s keep going with that theme—
In terms of trends. What do you think is on the cyber horizon, and the near term may be five years, or ten years, or even in a generation or so, by the time today’s Cadets who are seeking to branch Cyber, by the time they’re Colonels, what is the cyber domain or cyberspace, what is that going to look like for them?
Well, right now we’re going through an era of cultural change within the Army, so in the near-term we’re going to continue to do that, and it’s not a done deal. I mean the Army, the DoD I think largely appreciates it, but we have a great deal of progress to be made, a great deal of education to help inform people about what it is, what it isn’t, what its real capabilities are, what they could be.
So I see that occurring in the near-term. In terms of technology, I mean we’ve created something that’s a fragile house of cards, that if you try and bolt security on after the fact that can be very problematic and expensive.
But at the same time, the incentives, particularly in industry, are not to design security in, because it’s a rush to get products to market first. Now, but we see this countervailing force of well, if your business gets attacked in a major way, like we’ve seen the attacks against Sony where movies have been released that they’ve worked on for many years, and much of their personal information has been dumped to the internet.
I think we’ll see maturing of that—that there’ll be greater and greater awareness on the pipeline of people with expertise in this area who will come in and help mature the discipline, and hopefully we can build security in from the beginning. We’ll have raised awareness across the country and around the world. As far as technologies, certainly mobile is what we’re transitioning from desktops and PCs to mobile, to our mobile devices, things like cellular phones. And then the buzzword today is the internet of things—that every device will be connected to the internet, or many devices will be connected to the internet.
I think back of Isaac Asimov’s story of, you know, We Robots and others. I remember one particularly about a toy that was this intelligent toy that the child became attached to, and parents I think took it away.
I think we’re entering that era for those of you right now. For those of you in the future, we have our cellular phones, and there’s an artificial intelligence agent called Siri that we can talk to and will give us information, but basic information. But there’s a personality there.
I mean we see the glimpses of what that artificial intelligence can become, and I think you’ll see that embedded into the internet of things, and increasingly intelligent corporate entity, corporate AI is coming. I think we’ll see implants as people try to extend their lives and increase their functionality with new technology implanted in our bodies, things like cellular phones and locators. And if you push me farther out, I would say that we’re going to see direct neural interfaces, kind of the “hello world” or the initial example of that would be you wonder what time it is, and the chip in your brain tells you what time it is, right?
I think that’s coming—don’t know the timeline—25 years from today, maybe. With that comes a whole host of challenges. If you think about the malicious software getting onto your computer, I’m very concerned about malicious software breaking past the firewall and getting into our brains—so yeah, exciting times. As a security professional, you tend to see the glass is half-empty. Others will try and sell you these technologies because they’re cool, and we may repeat that cycle all over again where the bright, shiny new technology outraces the security.
It seems that Admiral Rogers, the Commander of Cyber Command, recently testified before Congress, and he said that a traumatic cyber event was not a question of if, but a question of when.
It seems that as a security professional you’re also sort of seeing the dark side of the otherwise neat opportunities. But what keeps you up at night—if there’s one thing that you could put your finger on that really has you most concerned?
So the true answer is there are things that literally keep me up at night. I wake up at 3:00 in the morning. It isn’t so much the threat aspects. It’s more trying to take care of the people, and feed the myriad senior leaders. We’ve got some great champions, so providing the information they need in a timely way, and interacting with higher levels, highest levels of the Army, is actually very demanding—for example, I’m briefing the Chief of Staff of the Army in early January.
And to do so, I have to brief a Council of Colonels.
I have to brief a one to two-star General Officer Steering Committee. I have to brief a three-star General Officer Steering Committee, all in preparation to brief the Chief of Staff of the Army. Before even briefing the Colonels, I had to brief the Superintendent here, and then before that, prepare slides, PowerPoint’s. I’m sure that—look it up in Wikipedia. For the future audience, look up the military communicates by PowerPoint, so you have to polish the PowerPoint slides and your briefing, pre-brief it, pre-brief it, pre-brief it, pre-brief it, and ultimately, brief the boss.
Great, great champions—you know, General Odierno’s been a great champion. Secretary of the Army McCune has been a great champion of this. They get it.
But a lot of effort goes in. The second is there’s a lot of well-intentioned people kind of in the intermediate layers, and just trying to slowly adjust and keep things in line—largely take care of the right people and allow them to thrive. So that’s usually what keeps me up at night.
What do you look forward to when you hit 30 years and you can finally leave the PowerPoint and the pre-briefs behind? What future challenges after your career in uniform do you afford to?
I’ve had the luxury for a few years at least, while I’m on the faculty and running the Cyber Research Center before it turned into the Army Cyber Institute, to think and write. I suspect after I graduate—after I graduate—after I complete 30 years, and I’m at 25-1/2 years in the Army now,
that if I can make it work, I will spend some time trying to capture these thoughts and put them down. We could have—there’s a lot to be said about this period that’s moving so fast.
Seems like we have weekly historic change occurring, that one day it’s the Cyber branch is created, the next week we’re creating the Cyber branch insignia, a couple of weeks later we’re defining criteria to choose the first West Point Cadets going Cyber, the first ROTC Cadets going Cyber. And this all involves like a week at Fort Knox to go through files. It’s all very time-consuming where we’re laying the groundwork, I think, down the road, that institution that is the Army will take place. So all of that, I would like to capture that.
There’s so many areas we could dig into in terms of books and writing and advising that are hard right now.
We’re putting a lot of energy into building the airplane. I’d like to—building the airplane, building the infrastructure, building the organizations. I’d like some more time to stay in the discipline. Like I said, going back to day one, this is what I love doing. Right now I’m in a position of helping people do what I love doing. I want to hopefully buy back some time to continue to do it myself.
Well, I think if Amazon.com still exists in the year 2020, we’ll look for your best-selling cyber memoirs. But in the meantime, let me again thank Colonel Greg Conti, ACI Director—thanks very much for your time.
|conflicts||Persian Gulf War|
|topics||Military Techniques Strategies Teamwork Cyber Security and Warfare|
|date||18 December 2014|
|name||COL Greg Conti|
|unit||Army Cyber Institute|