White House advisory group warns of '9/11-level cyber attack'

A private-sector cybersecurity advisory committee wants the U.S. to pivot to a higher state of readiness when it comes to preventing catastrophic cyberattacks.

 

A presidential advisory group is warning that the U.S. in not ready to cope with a catastrophic attack aimed at the U.S. power grid, communications systems and other critical infrastructure.

"We're in a pre-9/11 moment," warned Mike Wallace, a member of the National Infrastructure Advisory Council, at an Aug. 22 White House meeting.

The group, which includes corporate executives and former senior government officials, voted up a report recommending that the U.S. establish separate communications networks to support critical systems and take steps to rapidly declassify cybersecurity threat information so that front-line infrastructure operators can use it to defend against attacks.

The report itself is similarly blunt in its warnings. "There is a narrow and fleeting window of opportunity before a watershed, 9/11-level cyber attack to organize effectively and take bold action," it states.

Many of the recommendations will be familiar to cybersecurity policy watchers, including bolstering the workforce, improving machine-to-machine information sharing and streamlining the security clearance process to eliminate the backlog that disproportionately falls on private sector and contractor personnel.

The report and its recommendations aim at action, according to Wallace. "We don't want this report put on a shelf…We're at a point where important progress needs to be made."

NIAC also recommended tapping the White House National Security Adviser to oversee critical infrastructure cybersecurity.

As a model for that information sharing, the report cites the Department of Energy's public/private Cybersecurity Risk Information Sharing Program, as well as the Department of Homeland Security's Cyber Information Sharing and Collaboration Program.

The Gridex IV test, slated for Nov. 15-16, is recommended as a critical development point for more efficient infrastructure response. Gridex is a biennial exercise simulating a cyber-physical attack on electric and other critical infrastructures across North America and is a key to help clarify the federal government response, identifying agency-specific actions and coordinate responses.

The report, said cybersecurity working group Co-Chair Robert Carr, drew on responses from 140 senior current and former leaders at federal agencies and industry experts over the last 10 months.

In those conversations, he said, even with progress on cybersecurity issues, federal agencies and industry "are not organized to apply protections and authorities" that would crop up in a dire cyberattack that affects multiple infrastructure providers.

White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Robert Joyce, and Robert Kolasky, acting deputy undersecretary of the National Protection and Programs Directorate at DHS, attended the meeting to hear about the report.

Despite the report and NIAC's urgency, some stubborn issues remain around closer, more-coordinated efforts between federal and industry.

For instance, a NIAC recommendation that companies develop and implement best-in-class threat detection and scanning technology could be problematic for small and medium-sized companies, said NIAC Chair Constance Lau. Ensuring those smaller companies can participate in programs such as CRISP, she said, would help them. It might also run afoul of rules barring the federal government from endorsing products, according to some committee members.

When asked what the top three obstacles to industry were for not collaborating more closely with the federal government on cybersecurity, Wallace replied "legal, liability and privacy."

Those three issues, he said, make corporate executives who understand the looming threat reluctant to participate because they answer to shareholders. "It's a tough issue for a CEO."

All three of those issues have been a constant thorn in sharing information from private industry to the federal government, even though Congress eased liability rules for companies to share the data.

More congressional action might be needed in the areas, said Wallace.

According to Joyce, telecommunications companies have also been reluctant to make their senior executives available to participate in collaborative infrastructure protection meetings.

Wallace and Carr said elevating infrastructure protection to the national defense level could make infrastructure providers and federal agencies push it up their list of priorities.

Kolasky said DHS would take the study into its deliberations as it works to execute the president's cybersecurity executive order. "It's useful to our work," he said of the NIAC report.

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