(TNS) -- U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen and the former director of the NSA talked Wednesday in Linthicum about the importance of the government working with the private sector to improve the country's cyber security.
The discussion was hosted by Fort Meade Alliance, a non-profit that supports Fort Meade and its government agencies, such as the NSA. Figures in both the private and public sector attended the event. Alliance President Steve Tiller served as the moderator.
"When you start a fight, you want to know what the outcome will be," said retied Gen. Keith Alexander, who served as the NSA director from 2005-2014. "And when I look at our nation, we're not ready to defend ourselves in cyberspace. We have the best offensive team in the world, but we have the worst defense. We have the most infrastructure and the most risk."
Alexander served as the first commander of U.S. Cyber Command and is now CEO of IronNet Cybersecurity, a company that helps businesses with cyber security.
Van Hollen, a Democrat who was elected last fall to replace longtime U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, said there are ways the federal government can encourage companies to share information in order to avoid hacks. It will most likely require congressional action, he said.
"Obviously we want to fight the poisonous stuff that ISIS puts out there, and how we do it most effectively is going to require a lot of thought," Van Hollen said. "I do believe that we just need to raise awareness that the threat is real from the bad guys. I stand ready to do my part with you to find out the best ways to incentivize these actions. We know we're being attack everyday."
Alexander suggested that the government create tax incentives for companies to create more regimented cyber security programs. If companies do this and share information, then the government could provide a form of liability protection, he said.
"We got to help people understand that we need to share cyber information, which is not personally identifiable," Alexander said. "We need to be an advocate and to explain."
An important part of working together, Alexander said, is making sure the public understands what the agency does. The NSA does "more to protect civil liberties than any other agency," he said.
The public needs to understand that the NSA isn't hacking their phone calls, Alexander added. The information they gather "saves lives," he said.
"I think at times we do sensationalize instead of inform," Alexander said. "Here's the question and this will come to head with the (Trump) administration: How do we get protection of our country, security of our nation and security and privacy of our civil liberties? We can and should do both."
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