'Reverse Manhattan project' to lock down US federal computers

US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said his agency is working on a 'reverse Manhattan project' to secure federal computer systems

US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said his agency is working on a "reverse Manhattan Project" to help secure the federal government's computer systems.

A Presidential Directive signed in January gave the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) the go-ahead to beef up computer system security throughout the government. Federal systems have frequently fallen short of the mark in security audits, and have been hit with a series of online attacks over the past few years.

While the Manhattan Project in World War II sought to build the world's most powerful weapon -- the atomic bomb -- this latest project is designed to create a powerful defense system for the US, according to Chertoff, who said he takes cyber threats as seriously as threats in the physical world.

"We're operating in a domain where traditional military power or the power of government is insufficient to address the full nature of the threat," Chertoff said Tuesday at the RSA Conference in San Francisco. "We need to have a networked response to deal with a networked attack."

One of the goals of the project is to reduce the points where outsiders can access government systems from a number that is in the "thousands" to something more like 50, Chertoff said. He also wants federal agencies to bring their threat detection and response capabilities to a minimum baseline level. "The network is only as strong as its weakest link," he said.

According to a report in January in the Washington Post, this directive also authorizes the National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor computers in all federal agencies. The effort is expected to cost billions of dollars in the fiscal 2009 budget.

Chertoff said he would like to see the federal government develop an early warning system that could mitigate cyber attacks before they occur. "The best way to deal with an attack on a system is to prevent it before it happens," he said. "We have the capability now to detect what might be the signature of an attack before it is launched."

The DHS has created a National Cyber Security Center to do this work. It will be headed by Rod Beckstrom, an Internet entrepreneur who founded Cats Software and Twiki.net.

While the DHS has had problems retaining executive staff since its inception, Chertoff said he hoped to be able to attract more talent from the private sector. "We're not at the point of issuing stock options with government agencies," he said. "What can motivate people is the desire to serve," he said in a press conference after his address.

Chertoff himself was lured out of private law practice into public service, he said. "I'm optimistic that people who are in the IT area are going to be as selfless as lawyers and investment bankers and others who have done this."

Conference attendee Ron Hale said that many in the private sector underestimate the benefits of a public sector career, especially early on. "I think you get more experience and more responsibility in your career than you might get in the public sector," said Hale, director of information security practices with the Information Systems Audit and Control Association, a professional organization of information system auditors.

Hale got his start as a police crime scene investigator in Cook County, Illinois, before branching out into private work. He said that while some agencies like the US Internal Revenue Service or US Social Security Administration might not have the cachet to attract top talent, that's not the case with other agencies, such as the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"Saying you work for the DHS and you're working with the FBI, that's pretty sexy," he said. "That'll get you dates."

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Robert McMillan

IDG News Service
Show Comments


Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >


Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >


Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >


Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles


GGG Evaluation Team

Michael Hargreaves

Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Kathy Cassidy


First impression on unpacking the Q702 test unit was the solid feel and clean, minimalist styling.

Anthony Grifoni


For work use, Microsoft Word and Excel programs pre-installed on the device are adequate for preparing short documents.

Steph Mundell


The Fujitsu LifeBook UH574 allowed for great mobility without being obnoxiously heavy or clunky. Its twelve hours of battery life did not disappoint.

Andrew Mitsi


The screen was particularly good. It is bright and visible from most angles, however heat is an issue, particularly around the Windows button on the front, and on the back where the battery housing is located.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?