FCC says its cybersecurity measures to prevent DDoS attacks must remain secret

The FCC has provided a few — very few — details of the steps it has taken to prevent attacks like the one that briefly took down its comment system in May. The agency has faced criticism over its secrecy regarding the event, and shows no sign of opening up; citing “the ongoing nature of the threats,” to reveal its countermeasures would “undermine our system’s security.”

These cryptic comments are the first items of substance in a letter (PDF) sent to the House Energy and Commerce and Government Reform committees. Members thereof had sent letters to the FCC in late June asking what solutions it was implementing to mitigate or prevent future attacks.

A cover letter from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai emphasizes the fact that millions of comments have been filed since, including 2 million in the 4 days following the attack. He writes that the Commission’s IT staff “has taken additional steps… to ensure the ongoing integrity and resiliency of the system.”

What those steps are, however, he did not feel at liberty to say, except that they involve “commercial cloud providers” and “internet-based solutions.” Since the comment filing system is commercially cloud-hosted, and the system is fundamentally internet-based, neither of these descriptions is particularly revelatory.

It’s not the security, it’s the communication

The issue, however, isn’t that we are deeply afraid that another hacker will take down the system. After all, basic rate limiting and some analytics seem to have done the job and allowed record numbers of comments immediately after the attack stopped. The FCC was still writing reports and calling experts at the time the system had returned to full operation.

The issue is the FCC’s confusing and misleading handling of the entire thing.

The nature and extent of the attack is unclear — it’s described in a previous letter to concerned senators as a “non-traditional DDoS attack.” Supposedly the API was being hammered by cloud-based providers. What providers? Don’t they have records? Who was requesting the keys necessary to do this?

Very little has been disclosed, and even requests of information circumstantial to the attacks have been denied. What is so sensitive about an analysis of the network activity from that period? Petitioners seeking to see communications pertaining to the attack were told much of the analysis was not written down. Even the most naive internet user would find it hard to believe that in a major agency of a modern bureaucracy, a serious attack on its internet infrastructure, concerning a major internet policy, would fail to be discussed online.

The FCC also says it consulted with the FBI and agreed that the attack was not a “significant cyber incident” as such things are defined currently in government. For the curious:

A cyber incident that is (or group of related cyber incidents that together are) likely to result in demonstrable harm to the national security interests, foreign relations, or economy of the United States or to the public confidence, civil liberties, or public health and safety of the American people.

Okay, that seems reasonable. So why is it being kept under wraps? Why are the countermeasures, which are probably industry standard, unable to be disclosed? How would disclosing the details of those security countermeasures undermine those systems?

If it’s the “ongoing threat,” what is the threat exactly if not the pervasive threat of hacking faced by any public website, service or API? Have there been follow-up attacks we haven’t been informed of? The investigation is also ongoing, but in that case how could it fail to produce written records for FOIA requests like those already submitted?

The more the FCC drags its feet and stammers out non-answers to simple questions regarding what it itself has categorized a non-major attack that happened months ago and did not significantly affect its systems, the less we trust what it does say.

Concerned senators, representatives and others are not going to stop asking, however. Let’s hope whatever the FCC seems unwilling to share comes out before it ceases to be relevant. It would be a shame, for instance, to receive a full report on hackers bent on supporting one side of the net neutrality argument… the day after the FCC votes on the issue.