07 August 2008 by Published in: General News 3 comments

The following article appears today on CNET. The speech that it discusses was given at a major cybersecurity conference going on in Las Vegas called Black Hat:

August 7, 2008 11:06 AM PDT

Cybersecurity lessons from the Civil War
Posted by Elinor Mills

LAS VEGAS–The security issues we face today in cyberspace are the same ones the country faced during the American Civil War when Abe Lincoln was relying on telegraph transmissions to help keep the country united, a top U.S. cybersecurity official said in a keynote speech at the Black Hat security conference here Thursday.

Abe Lincoln, “the first wired president,” Beckstrom says. Lincoln was obsessed with reading telegrams that delivered updates from the battlefield, using them to learn about the military strategies and to offer feedback, said Rod Beckstrom, director of the National Cyber Security Center in the Department of Homeland Security.

“If he were alive today we would probably call him an e-mail junkie or a cyber junkie,” he said. “He was the first wired president; (telegraph) was a fixed wire” that could be severed or tapped.

Security lessons from battle were available even earlier in American history, according to Beckstrom. In the French and Indian wars, British forces relied on traditional warfare formations and often got slaughtered by French frontiersmen and their Native American supporters, who used guerrilla tactics like roadside ambushes.

One officer fighting on the side of the British who survived such attacks–George Washington–took the lessons of flexible fighting and guerrilla warfare with him in fighting for American independence, he said.

Even that American revolutionary war was almost lost because of “one of greatest threats we face today in cyberspace”–insider threats and hackers, Beckstrom said, displaying a portrait of Benedict Arnold, a disgruntled commanding officer who was passed over for promotion and charged with corruption after facing financial difficulties.

“He saw an opportunity,” and was selling plans for West Point and other military secrets to the British, but was caught in the end, Beckstrom said.

“We have the same threats today, just on different technology and mediums,” Beckstrom said.

Today, however, nations, businesses, and individuals also confront a single point of failure in cyberspace, with the Internet protocols and technologies, like the Domain Name System, he said. (A serious DNS vulnerability was the subject of a session at Black Hat on Wednesday.)

“Invest in protocols because it may be the cheapest security dollars we can invest,” Beckstrom said. The Department of Homeland Security is funding research related to DNS security, among other initiatives, he added. “We’ve got to move forward because we’ve got to change the odds of this game.”

The IP dependencies in the telecommunications sector put emergency communications, like mobile phone texting, at risk, Beckstrom said, noting that he was in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, and in Pakistan when an earthquake hit and saw firsthand how crucial texting is. A cell phone tower can handle 200 or more calls simultaneously and about 5,000 text messages a second, according to Beckstrom.

And don’t forget the plain old telephone system, which will still be operational if the IP system goes down, he said.

Without elaboration, Beckstrom said: “Why can’t we quarantine computers that are disrupting the Internet?”

He touched on issues of punishment, “cyber justice,” and cyber diplomacy, and ended the talk asking more questions than he answered.

“What are the new cyber rules?” he asked. “How do we develop an international framework and move toward cooperation?”

Lincoln’s proclivities toward the telegraph have been well documented, most recently in a 2007 book titled Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War. However, this is the first time that I’ve heard this particular analogy made.

The Civil War still permeates everything we do in this country.

Scridb filter


  1. Thu 07th Aug 2008 at 7:44 pm


    Thanks for posting this…very interesting, indeed. I actually think some folks in the Civil War era were very forward thinking when it came to electronic communications. In late 1861, the *Scientific American* asked its readers to give attention to inventing a “pocket telegraph” that could be “operated without connecting wires; capable of being carried in the pocket like a watch, and to be in sympathetic relation to another similar instrument possessed by a distant friend or correspondent.”

    Sound like a cell phone to you?!

    Mind you, they weren’t saying “someday people will be using something like this.” It was 1861 and they saw a need for it right then. Imagine what it would have done for battlefield communications!

    All My Best,

    Jim Schmidt

  2. Thu 07th Aug 2008 at 11:37 pm

    I’ve read a lot of Beckstrom’s commentary on the professional side of things. He has some valid points. The bottom line is human behavior is the common theme. Yes, “hackers” have existed all through history, be they “Arnolds” or “Rose Greenhows” (what we call today a “social engineering attack”).

  3. toby
    Thu 14th Aug 2008 at 5:24 am

    Interesting, one nit … did George Washington take the lesson of “flexible fighting and guerilla war”.

    I would say the reverse …. Washington insisted that his army dispense with bushwhacking and should fight in line like European armies. Hence the employment of Baron von Steuben. Washington knew that a guerilla war could only take the Americans so far.To drive the British out completely out of North America, their army had to be defeated in full-scale battles, as indeed they were.

Comments are closed.

Copyright © Eric Wittenberg 2011, All Rights Reserved
Powered by WordPress