Why the private sector shouldn't rely on feds for cybersecurity

Shutterstock image (by Sergey Nivens): Security concept, lock on a digital screen. 

Keep your expectations low if you are a private company calling the federal government for help after a cyber incident -- at least that's what two former Department of Homeland Security officials warn.

Speaking on a panel about private sector cybersecurity at the RSA conference in San Francisco, they said that while Presidential Policy Directive 41 and the National Cyber Incident Response Plan (NCIRP) outline roles and responsibilities for the federal government and private sector in the wake of a cyberattack, many companies still aren't even sure of what agency to call after a breach.

Mark Weatherford, chief cybersecurity strategist at vARMOUR and former deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security said that when he was at DHS he encouraged the private sector to call his agency, though more often than not, companies would reach out to the FBI, if they reached out at all.

"I think what the private sector wants is information" after a breach, he said. "The last thing that the private sector wants is to see a bunch military guys pull up front and say, 'We're here to help.'"

Stewart Baker, a partner at Steptoe & Johnson LLP and former assistant secretary for policy at DHS, said the private sector should reach out to the government when breached but keep expectations low.

"There's a resource constraint," Baker said. "Put more bluntly for the private sector: You're own your own. These guys are not really in a position to help you much.

"It would be great if the government had really novel expertise," he said. "In a few spots it does. It often has intelligence, and the intelligence may allow it to identify your attacker or tell you about some additional risks you should be aware of in your network, but that's pretty rare."

He said as much as private-sector companies would love to have more insight into who is attacking them and how to prevent it, "the government is not, by and large, smarter than the private-sector cybersecurity experts."

"Basically you're going to have to help yourself," Baker told FCW. "You're going to have to hire the people, the experts that you want to provide help,” he said. “You can look to the government to hold your hand through the experience -- give you advice for the future -- but this is going to be very painful for companies, and the government doesn't have an answer for that pain."

Both Baker and Weatherford added that PPD-41 and the NCIRP are designed for major cyber incidents and that 99 percent of incidents that happen on a daily basis do not rise to the level of requiring government action.

They said that smaller companies -- those Weatherford termed the "unfortunate 5,000" who don't have extensive resources -- can benefit from free cybersecurity information from DHS and the National Institute for Standards and Technology's cybersecurity framework. They also said companies should read the NCIRP and sign up for vulnerability alerts from US-CERT, but they still need to develop their own response plans.

Baker stressed that while there is a lot of conversation about "protection" and trying to prevent cyberattacks, the reality is that there is no "missile shield" model of prevention in cyberspace, and the federal government is not going to preposition itself in civilian networks to block breaches.

"There isn't the same architecture to defense in this area," he said. "Probably the U.S. government is going to do more about attributing attacks, responding to attacks [and] harming people who are causing those attacks."

This could drive up the cost for cybercriminals and help deter some future attacks, but in the meantime, Weatherford and Baker said that private companies will need to take steps to share more information with each other and work together to develop best practices if they want to avoid more government regulation on cybersecurity.

"There probably needs to be some kind of incentive," Weatherford said. "Private sector companies --  regardless of what sector -- they're not always going to do the right thing unless there is some forcing factor."

About the Author

Sean Carberry is a former FCW staff writer who focused on defense, cybersecurity and intelligence.


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