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How Cyber Security Is Like Basketball, According to Barack Obama

"There’s no clear line between offense and defense," Obama said.

Vjeran Pavic

President Barack Obama used a sports simile to explain why the American government’s work to infiltrate other countries and groups around the world isn’t hypocritical — especially in light of its condemnation of North Korea’s alleged role in the massive Sony hacking scandal of the past few months.

“This is more like basketball than football, in the sense that there’s no clear line between offense and defense. Things are going back and forth all the time,” Obama said of American cyber security, attributing the analogy to an unnamed adviser.

Interviewer Kara Swisher* of Re/code, a noted sportsphobe, asked when those offensive maneuvers go over the line.

“I won’t lie to you, this is a debate that we have internally,” Obama replied. “Because when you develop sufficient defenses, the same sophistication you need for defenses means that, potentially, you can engage in offense. Now, there are some things that we’re very clear about. For example, we just don’t do espionage the way many other countries do, where their state-sponsored operations are going in and stealing information commercially.”

Obama continued, “Most of the work that we do revolves around threats against us from non-state actors, and obviously terrorism is a huge field. And increasingly, cyber terrorism is gonna be something that we’re concerned about. But we are gonna have to build in a whole set of safeguards to make sure that we are upholding high standards if we expect others to do the same.”

Last week, Obama renewed his call for legislation that would provide liability protection for companies that share cyber attack data with the government and announced a $35 million cyber-attack initiative called the Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center to share information between intelligence and law enforcement agencies. As Re/code’s Amy Schatz wrote, both received tepid responses in Washington.

Eventually, Obama told Swisher on Friday, he’d like there to be international protocols that set limits and guidelines for cyber attacks akin to those for nuclear arms, especially for countries that are real threats like China, Russia and Iran.

The risk is significant, Obama emphasized. “It’s not as if North Korea is particularly good at this,” he said. “But look how much damage they were able to do. Non-state actors can do a lot of damage as well. So we’ve got to constantly upgrade our game.”

* Kara Swisher is married to but separated from Megan Smith, chief technology officer for the Obama Administration. See her ethics statement here.

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