NIST chief: Private sector cybersecurity standards could help feds

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Protecting the nation's critical infrastructure poses a challenge that private-sector practices might address. (Stock image)

Cybersecurity standards for critical infrastructure developed under President Obama's recent executive order could affect the way federal government networks are protected against cyber attacks, according a senior official.

Under the February 19 executive order, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has a year to develop and publish a set of voluntary standards for operators of electrical grids, dams, water supplies, and other systems deemed critical for cybersecurity purposes. NIST director Patrick Gallagher said that federal networks could benefit from the new standards.

"If the private sector is going to go through all this trouble to develop a high performance cybersecurity baseline, I think the federal government should leverage that," Gallagher said at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce committee on May 21. One benefit to new standards is helping to achieve market scale for products and services that are compliant with the new standards.

While the executive order exempts commercial information technology products from falling under the scope of critical infrastructure, Gallagher suggested that standards developed under the NIST process could be find their way into IT products and services including cloud that are used by federal agencies. From the point of view of a federal chief information officer, new standards developed for civilian infrastructure could help an agency meet the responsibility of protecting an IT system that incorporates private cloud networks for data storage and application management, Gallagher said.

Rep. Doris Matsui underscored the importance of this approach to cloud security. "As the government continues to transition to cloud systems for data storage, I believe a strong public, private partnership is necessary for creating security standards for information stored in the cloud," she told FCW.

The hearing was largely a progress report on implementation of the executive order. Next steps include recommendations from Treasury, Commerce (the parent agency of NIST) and the Department of Homeland Security on possible incentives designed to induce private companies to comply with voluntary cybersecurity standards. Some of these inducements could include limitations on liability of companies that share threat information with the government -- a provision in the CISPA legislation that the administration opposes -- and the creation of private insurance markets to quantify and absorb some of the risk of losses due to cyber attack.

Republicans on the committee, including vice chair Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) sought assurances that the standards developed through the process would remain voluntary and cooperative. While NIST has no authority to establish regulations governing cybersecurity, Gallagher did make clear under questioning that the executive order was only an aspect of the government's overall cybersecurity posture.

"I think we strongly prefer a voluntary, industry-led consensus process. It's adoptable around the world and helps shape technology and markets in a way that would not be possible if you took a regulatory approach," Gallagher said, but added that if such an approach didn't protect critical infrastructure, then it would be up to Congress and the executive branch to devise more effective and binding policy.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is FCW's senior staff writer, and covers Congress, health IT and governmentwide IT policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @thisismaz.

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