Cybersecurity program has serious defects, GAO says

Implementing the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative, a broad program intended to protect the nation’s cyber infrastructure, has been hampered by a lack of coordination and transparency, according to the Government Accountability Office.

“CNCI is unlikely to fully achieve its goal of reducing potential vulnerabilities, protecting against intrusion attempts, and anticipating future threats to federal information systems unless roles and responsibilities for cybersecurity activities across the federal government are more clearly defined and coordinated,” the GAO concluded in a November briefing to the staff of the House Armed Services subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities.

The GAO also concluded that too much of the initiative, which was spelled out in National Security Presidential Directive 54 and Homeland Security Presidential Directive 23, has remained classified.


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“Since the approval of NSPD-54/HSPD-23, few elements of CNCI have been made public,” the GAO briefing said. “While certain aspects and details of CNCI must necessarily remain classified, the lack of transparency regarding CNCI projects hinders accountability to Congress and the public. In addition, current classification may make it difficult for some agencies, as well as the private sector, to interact and contribute to the success of CNCI projects.”

Vivek Kundra, the federal chief information officer, responded that roles and responsibilities for carrying the initiative are clearly spelled out and that lead agencies for each of 12 CNCI projects have been identified. But the administration last week responded to the issue of transparency by declassifying much of the initiative.

“The administration has updated the classification guidelines for the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative,” White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Howard Schmidt said in a March 2 address at the RSA Security Conference in San Francisco. Declassified portions of the initiative were made available online at the White House Web site.

The presidential directives establishing CNCI were issued in 2008, and according to the Homeland Security Department their intent is to establish a frontline cyber defense by reducing vulnerabilities and preventing intrusions; defend against a full range of threats through better intelligence and strengthening supply chain security; and a more secure cyber environment by promoting research, development, and education as well as investing in leap-ahead technologies.

Four agencies have responsibilities for multiple projects of CNCI.

The Homeland Security Department is responsible for protecting civilian agency information systems, including reducing and consolidating external access points, deploying passive network sensors, and defining public and private partnerships. The Defense Department is charged with monitoring military information systems, increasing the security of classified networks, and deploying intrusion prevention systems.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is responsible for monitoring intelligence community information systems and other intelligence-related activities, including the development of a governmentwide cyber counterintelligence plan. The Office of Science and Technology Policy provides advice on domestic and international affairs, and oversees the CNCI projects focusing on advanced technology research and development.

The Office of Management and Budget, the Justice Department and the National Security Council also have lead roles on CNCI projects.

In evaluating CNCI progress, GAO identified four key needs:

  • Better-defined agency roles and responsibilities. The initiative has not clarified overlapping and uncoordinated responsibilities.
  • Measures of effectiveness of CNCI projects in increasing the cybersecurity.
  • Better transparency to facilitate better coordination with the private sector and ensure accountability to the public.
  • Agreement on the scope of cybersecurity education efforts.

“Until these challenges are adequately addressed, there is a risk that CNCI will not fully achieve its goal to reduce vulnerabilities, protect against intrusions, and anticipate future threats against federal executive branch information systems,” GAO concluded its briefing.

GAO also identified two issues that are beyond the scope of the CNCI, but that affect the security of federal information systems. These are the lack of a formal strategy for coordinating law enforcement, information sharing and efforts to set standards with international partners; and the need to strategically address identity management and authentication. Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 required a governmentwide standard for secure identification, but CNCI does not include any identity management projects.

Although he agreed with most of the GAO’s recommendations for getting CNCI on track, Kundra disagreed that “overlapping and uncoordinated” responsibilities were an issue.

“The roles and responsibilities of agencies participating in the CNCI are clearly defined by NSPD-54/HSPD-23,” with lead agencies designated for each initiative and quarterly reports being made on progress, he wrote in his response to the GAO.

GAO criticized the government’s response to denial of service attacks on a number of federal Web sites in July 2009. But Kundra said that response did not fall under CNCI responsibilities. “Operational incident response management for civil executive branch departments and agencies is set forth in the Federal Information Security Management Act,” he wrote.

He said that “the National Computer Security Center is responsible for assisting with situational awareness across the government, public and private sectors,” and that its roles and responsibilities are clear. “NDSC coordinates incident information flowing between multiple operational incident response centers . . . . It does not handle incident detection and response, with is a responsibility of operational incident response centers.”

The job of connecting current cyber centers to improve situational awareness is one of the ODNI projects and has not yet been completed.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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