Last week President George W. Bush toured the National Security Agency to offer his support to NSA employees. A photo accompanying a Washington Post article about the visit showed some sort of global threat display in the background, and Boing Boing, among others, have been going crazy over the fact that this photo contains completely unclassified information that anybody can display right on their own computers. Today I’m going to tell you what that display was, where the information came from, why people are overreacting, and what NSA is really doing.
First off, the display in the background of that photo is the Talisker Computer Defence Operational Picture, which you too can display right on your own computer. It displays the latest computer security news, vulnerabilities, virus information, links to security tool versions, and a graph of network port scan activity. It’s a pretty useful tool if you’re monitoring threats on the Internet.
Which NSA does indeed do every day, but I’ll get into that later.
The reason that that’s on display in the first place is not because the President showed up, but because he had the press with him. NSA, like other government agencies which deal with classified information, must “sanitize,” or remove all classified information from, any area in which people not cleared to see it will visit. In this case, that means the press. So, regardless of what’s on that particular display on any given day, it’s either going to have to be blank, or show unclassified information, when the press — or anybody without a security clearance — shows up. This only makes sense.
Now, one thing a lot of people don’t know is that NSA does indeed monitor computer and Internet security threats. It does so through its National Computer Security Center, right on site at Fort Meade, which largely works with unclassified information. NCSC is also responsible for evaluating computer technology for use by the Department of Defense and other government agencies for its ability to securely process classified information. They’re also responsible for the rainbow books.
So what’s the big deal?