Fixing the Fractured Federal Approach to Cybersecurity.

Everyone knows the U.S. has a cybersecurity problem and the Biden administration’s emergency request for $10 billion starts out by acknowledging we are in crisis. The question is what to do about it. 

Today the government has a fractured approach to cybersecurity. Just look at the emergency allocation and you’ll see those dollars flowing to at least five different departments and agencies: the General Services Administration, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the federal chief information security officer and U.S. Digital Services. As the old saying goes, when everyone is in charge, no one is in charge.

Biden and Congress should fundamentally reorganize its disparate efforts into a centralized Department of Cybersecurity. This new department should have the mandate to organize the big-three triad—people, tech and processes—into a cohesive structure. The work that has started under both parties administrations, such as the creation of the federal information security officer within the Office of Management and Budget by President Barack Obama and the creation of CISA, an operational component of the Department of Homeland Security, under President Donald Trump are steps in the right direction, but it’s time to build on these efforts and together under a single, effective agency stop the “spread it like peanut butter” approach to cyber. 

Empowered and Accountable Cyber Adoption

Cyber Department people would be responsible for cybersecurity throughout the federal government. This is not just a network defense role. There are at least three different times in computer systems’ life cycles that cybersecurity is needed. First, the department would serve as a resource for creating more modern DevSecOps efforts throughout the government. Second, the department would serve as evaluators who help the government determine whether new acquisitions are cyber fit for purpose. Third, the department would act as the central point for incident response and defensive operations. 

Developing New Systems

The government needs to adopt a “shift left” mindset, where security is baked in as early as possible into development as possible. This is also the best value for the taxpayer. Studies show that fixing a problem after deployment can cost up to 100x more than if found early. A Cyber Department would provide the secure development framework and resources for implementation. 

The department would also provide the in-house expertise to make sure systems are implemented with cybersecurity in mind. Portions of the Defense Department have already adopted this shift-left mindset and are reaping the benefits. For example, the Air Force is adopting a more DevSecOps-friendly approach with its program Platform One. We need this institutionalized as a practice throughout the government.

Safer Procurement

Second, a Cyber Department would provide evaluation expertise during procurement for new or modernizing existing systems from commercial vendors. The government procures billions of dollars of IT software each year, and the government needs experts to help evaluate whether that software is secure enough. 

The Biden administration cites an IT modernization crisis. In fact, about $9 billion of the $10 billion in emergency budget requests will go into technology modernization. While technically correct IT systems need modernization, the larger context is missed. A recent congressional oversight scorecard shows the government currently is only doing one thing well: commercial license compliance. What they are falling behind on is risk management and cybersecurity because they are treating cyber like a widget to license.

The Government Accountability Office recently found that the government still is not implementing cybersecurity requirements in contracts for weapons systems. Because there are no contracting requirements, it’s not done. One of the Cyber Department’s tasks would be not just ensuring there are cybersecurity requirements but also providing the subject matter experts to evaluate whether vendors satisfy the criteria.

Defending Networks

Lastly, a Cyber Department would serve as the natural extension to CISA, which is expected to provide cybersecurity across all levels of government, and where appropriate, industry. Within industry, this role would be called the “computer information security officer” and run a governmentwide security operations center.

The role would include a clear cybersecurity defense mandate. A Cyber Department, however, should not become a law enforcement agency. That means the department would be responsible for defending but still rely upon existing law enforcement agencies to pursue any action against domestic or foreign cyber threat actors. 

Overall, such a centralized agency would provide a much needed authoritative source for moving cyber forward in the government. As stated by the GAO, “Despite the issuance of a National Cyber Strategy in 2018, it is still unclear which executive branch official is ultimately responsible for not only coordinating implementation of the strategy, but also holding federal agencies accountable once activities are implemented.” The Department of Cyber would finally provide a home for the cybersecurity efforts currently spread out throughout the government.

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