Defense bill heightens supply-chain scrutiny

Airman using DCO

Military security officials would get greater access to information about intrusions into contractor networks under the Defense Authorization bill that recently passed the House. (File photo)

The Defense authorization bill that passed the House of Representatives on June 14 seeks to give military security officials greater access to information about intrusions into the unclassified networks of contractors that maintain classified networks, and directs the Pentagon to develop a plan to report the presence of gear from Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE in the computer networks of military contractors.

These are requests for reviews contained in a committee report attached to the bill, but some in industry are worried that they augur a new policy direction when it comes to oversight of the corporate networks of military contractors. The report states, "the committee believes that intrusions on the unclassified networks of cleared contractors may be the very first indicator that a foreign entity is attempting to compromise or exploit cleared personnel, or to obtain illegal or unauthorized access to sensitive information and technology resident in the cleared industrial base," and that "there is insufficient governance, monitoring, and reporting of cyber attacks on the unclassified networks of the cleared contractors." Information gleaned from intrusions into unclassified networks could yield sensitive information to an attacker.

On their face, the actions sought in the committee report are modest. The secretary of defense and the director of national intelligence are charged with the review of a key document that guides the efforts of the Defense Security Service to protect sensitive and classified information and technology to make sure that DSS is, "not being hampered by a lack of access to information regarding intrusions on the unclassified networks of cleared contractors," and report back to Congress on their findings.

The Obama administration has been seeking mandatory reporting of intrusions on private networks as part of its overall cybersecurity strategy, but so far it's been a non-starter legislatively. Scott Bousum, a senior manager for national security at the trade association TechAmerica, sees the language in the committee report as an effort to push these cybersecurity directives more narrowly to apply to cleared contractors. The problem, he said, is that new requirements would "cost billions of dollars" collectively in compliance for contractors. This would be felt especially keenly by companies that get only a small share of their revenue from defense contracts, Bousum said.

On the hardware side, the committee is also concerned that equipment manufactured by Huawei and ZTE, "could be could potentially be resident in the networks of cleared defense contractors," and wants the DSS to create a plan to "enhance awareness" of potential consequences arising the use of gear from firms with links to the Chinese government and military. An Armed Services Committee request in the FY 2013 Defense authorization bill led to the discovery and replacement of Chinese-made equipment in nuclear research facility at Los Alamos. A committee staffer told FCW, "we're just moving the search on to look at other parts of the system....This is not a witch hunt against anything made in China. These two companies are known bad actors."

The bill would have to pass in the Senate and be signed by the president for the committee report to take effect. President Obama has indicated he would veto the bill in its present form for a multitude of reasons, none having to do with contractor network cybersecurity or concerns about the IT supply chain.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy, health IT and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mr. Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian started his career as an arts reporter and critic, and has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, Architect magazine, and other publications. He was an editorial assistant and staff writer at the now-defunct New York Press and arts editor at the online network in the 1990s, and was a weekly contributor of music and film reviews to the Washington Times from 2007 to 2014.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.

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