Can the national security workforce telework? Those who have worked in classified spaces have been unable to telework due to the sensitivities of their work. The defense and intelligence communities, in particular, have long assumed that they required their workforce to be present in secure facilities (even if they did not require access to classified materials) to maintain control of sensitive information.
Why has the national security community made these assumptions? We have made these decisions because of the potential risks associated with our profession. Billions of dollars have been spent on sensitive sensors — like satellites and long range radars — that would take a long time to replace at significant costs. Weapons, like nuclear missiles and bombs, pose grave threats to the global population, and how the nation prepares for nuclear war and the designs of these weapons must be protected as much as possible. With troops deployed globally in warzones, information about their whereabouts and capabilities pose great risk to their safety. In a world where information is key to decision-making, national security provides some of the most critical information to policymakers, who in turn make life and death decisions. This is why our community has gone to such lengths to maintain information security.
But how does one do this kind of work during a global pandemic?
THE QUESTIONS THE PANDEMIC FORCED US TO ASK
The COVID pandemic quickly changed the logic of keeping groups of workers in close proximity to one another. The commercial world quickly sent its workforce home to telework, having invested heavily in telework capabilities over the past several years. The national security community, on the other hand, was unprepared for such an event.
Senior policymakers have had the ability to access and store classified information at home for a number of years. These individuals have had access to secure telephones, safes, classified cell phones for email, and even computers that could access classified networks in their homes. These resources, however, have not been available to the average national security worker.
While we have planned for pandemics — looking at our responses through the lens of logistics and reserve mobilizations — we were caught off guard on how to best protect the workforce while being able to support our critical mission. At the pandemic’s outset the national security workforce was forced to evaluate the following:
How many people can be in an office?
Is shift work necessary to keep individuals safe while maintaining productivity?
Can some information be declassified?
Are there new information sources, like open source information, to allow for a telework option?
Senior policymakers have had the ability to access and store classified information at home for a number of years. These individuals have had access to secure telephones, safes, classified cell phones for email, and even computers that could access classified networks in their homes. The intent was to enable senior leaders to be constantly informed in a world with constant nuclear threats and a globally deployed military.
These resources, however, have not been available to the average national security worker. The national security apparatus has been so concerned about maintaining control of information that it designed a system to limit information spillage as much as possible. There have been some high profile incidents of individuals leaking classified information to the rest of the world (remember Robert Hansen and Edward Snowden?), but by and large the system has prevented the world from learning about US defense and intelligence capabilities. Many times when individuals are suspected of leaking classified information, they are leaking it to the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). This thesis of information security has led to a culture of presenteeism, whereby people should only work in the office even if they wished to complete some tasks at home.
WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY FOR TELEWORKING
Advances in technology, however, have changed the national security workforce’s ability to access the information they need wherever they may be. During NORTHCOM’s response to the pandemic, the Department of Defense personnel had access to classified networks through the Air Force’s deviceONE technology, under the auspices of the Advanced Battle Management System program. This device uses a “zero-trust” security feature, where the device can access sensitive or classified data in the cloud, but does not store any data on the device itself. If for whatever reason one of these tabletOne devices were lost, there would not be a breach of security — a far cry from the alternative if a classified computer or cell phone were lost.
5G technologies introduce a capability called network splicing. This capability allows telecommunications companies, for instance, to segment parts of their networks for dedicated services. Data flowing on these spliced networks are “firewalled” from the rest of the network, providing information security. Through network splicing, along with traditional communications methods, the national security community can maintain information security while transmitting it.
Finally, advances in cloud capabilities allow users to access information anywhere at different classification levels. Amazon Web Services (AWS), for example, already provides cloud capabilities to the intelligence communities. The Air Force, through its Advanced Battle Management System is creating a cloud environment that can enable users to access different levels of classification based on their need to know.
Combining these technologies could make distributed networking possible if working from home becomes a standard practice. But for distributed networking to work for national security professionals working from home on a regular basis, the following technologies would need to work in concert: secure communications through 5G, cloud storage using AWS or other like services, and zero-trust on devices accessing these cloud-storage systems. If nothing else, this past year has shown us that this is possible.
SO… IS TELEWORK AN OPTION NOW?
With these new technologies in mind, let us revisit our original question: can the national security community telework?
Clearly, new technologies that have been introduced over the past year provide the capability to access the information our community needs to be able to work from home. Instead, the question transforms into a series of policy issues. How should we balance the risks of personal safety with information security? Is the nation willing to accept the risk of using a more commercial approach when thinking about the national security workforce? Can the cultural influences in the national security community be broken? And, ultimately, are policymakers willing to allow defense and intelligence analysts to work from home? Since I’ve been writing this from home, I would say teleworking is a viable option for the NatSec community.
John Hoehn is a defense policy analyst. The views expressed are solely his own.
The Future of National Security Work is a series of articles that examine the experience of work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the future of work once the pandemic has gone. For more in the series, check back here.