Agencies must determine computer security teams in face of potential federal shutdown

With cybersecurity threats on the rise, essential IT staff would be much bigger than in 1995

With the WikiLeaks hacks and other threats to cybersecurity present, guarding against cyberattacks has become a significant part of governing -- especially because most government agencies have moved to online systems.

As a potential government shutdown comes closer, agencies must face new questions about defining “essential” computer personnel. Cyber threats weren’t as significant during the 1995 furlough as they are today, reports NextGov. The publication adds that agencies need to buck up and be organized.


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In late January, government officials, NATO and the European Union banded together in Brussels to formulate a plan to battle cyber bandits, according to Defense Systems.

Leaders there agreed that existing cybersecurity measures were incomplete and decided to fast-track a new plan for cyber incident response.

Meanwhile, observers are wondering whether the U.S. government has a plan to deal with cyberattacks in the case of a shutdown.

The lists of essential computer security personnel drawn up 15 years ago are irrelevant today, computer specialists told NextGov.

In 1995, the only agencies concerned about cybersecurity were entities such as the FBI and CIA. Today, before any potential government shutdown happens, a plan of essential IT personnel should be determined, the specialists add.

Agencies should be figuring out which systems will need daily surveillance and strategic defense, as well as evaluating the job descriptions of the people operating in those systems, former federal executives told NextGov.

Hord Tipton, a former Interior Department CIO, agrees. “If they haven’t done it, there’s going to be a mad scramble, and there’s going to be a hole in the system,” he told the site. 

All government departments are supposed to have contingency plans on deck that spell out essential systems and the employees associated with them, according to federal rules.

Meanwhile, some experts say determining which IT workers are essential depends more on the length of the shutdown.

Jeffrey Wheatman, a security and privacy analyst with the Gartner research group, tells NextGov that a shutdown lasting a couple of weeks “would require incident response personnel, network administrators and staff who monitor firewall logs for potential intrusions.”

If a shutdown lasted a month or longer, more employees would need to report, he said, adding: “New threats could emerge during that time frame, which demands people with strategy-oriented job functions to devise new lines of defense.”

Employees who are deemed “essential” are critical to national security.

Cyber warfare or holes in cybersecurity can threaten a nation’s infrastructure. In particular, the electric grid, the nation’s military assets, financial sector and telecommunications networks can be vulnerable in the face of an attack, reports Federal Computer Week.

Reader comments

Wed, Oct 9, 2013 Patrick United States

I am contractor for a Federal Agency employed as a cyber security incident responder. During this shutdown, I am going without pay, and unlike Civil Service employees, there has been no bill passed by the House to reimburse contractors for their lost wages. This situation creates a very serious danger for our nation caused by a convergence of factors: 1) The information systems of the United States Government are under continual attack from sophisticated and well-funded foreign governments. At this moment, practically no one is working to repel those attacks. We are in fact engaged in a cyber war right now with several nations. And at this moment – no one is guarding the fort. 2) Under normal circumstances, the US Government has a serious shortage of trained personnel to maintain countermeasures to those cyber attacks. Most of the personnel that do exist are now furloughed contractors, who have no hope of reimbursement once they return to work. 3) Since the private sector has a similar shortage of trained cyber security personnel, it behooves those of us who are employed as Federal contractors to seek more reliable employment elsewhere. This will only increase the personnel shortage and exacerbate the risks to the information systems that are an essential part of Federal Government operations. I have no doubt that several hostile foreign governments are currently celebrating their unfettered freedom to compromise the security and operational integrity of the Federal Government’s computers and networks. And I am challenged to express in words how demoralizing it is to be considered “non-essential” and to be summarily tossed off our jobs and told to eek out an existence without pay. Those of us who work as cyber security contractors for the Federal Government are generally paid less than our counterparts in the private sector. Patriotism and pride in our mission is a large part of our compensation. But pride and patriotism won’t pay our bills, feed our children, or compensate for the lost wages caused by unreliable employment.

Thu, Mar 17, 2011

I wonder how many cyber security techs/sys admins will set logic bombs set to go off a couple days after a shutdown starts...

Tue, Mar 1, 2011 Chicago

Government IT departments, especially cybersecurity should be on the critical list. These areas of the government should never shutdown as the bureacrats debate thier politics. Seems stupid to me... Will the security at Fort Knox be laid off, what about our nuclear weapon facilities, will the security at the front gate of the white house not be there also? Oh... before you leave make sure you turn out all the lights and firewalls too....

Fri, Feb 25, 2011 IT Specialist Indiana

If there is a shutdown I fully expect to be told I'm not essential and to stay home. Then within a day or two I'll get a panicked call because something broke and none of the "essentials" know how to fix it.

Thu, Feb 24, 2011 Trail Boss

Last time there was a government shutdown, a hacker broke into NASA's then new web server in a much publicized incident at the time, as there was no one home to stop it.

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