Consolidating federal networks could lead to new security holes

Upgrading the federal government's networks is a bipartisan goal among policymakers in Washington, but some worry that a unified architecture presents risks of its own.

 

For years, one of the chief aims of the IT modernization movement has been replacing the federal government's outdated architecture. Before truly tapping into the transformative power of new software and security tools, the thinking goes, government must first scrap its ancient patchwork networks for a new unified IT infrastructure.

This view cuts across party lines and ideology. In December 2016, a cybersecurity report commissioned by the outgoing Obama administration recommended that the government "establish a program to consolidate all civilian agencies' network connections (as well as those of appropriate government contractors) into a single consolidated network." In August, the Trump administration unveiled its own plan for IT modernization, with network consolidation serving as one of the main drivers for the transformation.

Both administrations framed their unified architecture plans as necessary prerequisites to implementing a comprehensive, modern cybersecurity strategy across federal agencies. However, among security experts both inside and outside government, there is concern that even if a network upgrade is overdue, this approach may wind up creating new vulnerabilities to the government's systems and data.

Tony Sager, senior vice president at the Center for Internet Security, told FCW that there is currently a "great debate" in the information security community about whether a unified IT architecture would ultimately be a net positive or negative when it comes to protecting federal systems. One thing both sides agree on is that the status quo has many flaws.

"We have such challenges with outdated IT that create a lot of security problems in and of themselves," Sager said.

But there are signs that a move to a more consolidated network is causing problems of its own. A survey of federal IT leaders found that a majority felt IT modernization initiatives were exacerbating security challenges, at least in the short term. One of the most frequently vocalized concerns is that a unified network will make it easier for malicious hackers and increase the damage that can be done through a single vulnerability.

Beth Dunphy, program director for cybersecurity at IBM, said that while a consolidated approach would certainly yield efficiencies in design and purchasing, ultimately when it comes to defending a network, "a little complexity goes a long way."

"I think having a common playing field and common standards certainly helps everybody understand what you're trying to keep secure, but at the end of the day, that is all going to make it easier [for cyber intruders] to repeat the attacks," said Dunphy at the AFCEA Homeland Security Conference on  Sept. 12.  "So if I know agency A and B have implemented the same tools the same way, they're also likely misconfigured the same way, and I can get into both systems the same way."

John Felker, director of the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, pointed to conclusions drawn after post-2016 investigations into election and voting systems as an example of this principle. One of the reasons federal investigators appear confident that voting machines weren't tampered with or hacked on a widespread basis is the decentralized nature of the county's electoral infrastructure, which is mostly administrated at the state or precinct level.

"By definition [the systems are] different and much more difficult to hack," Felker said.         

The counter argument from those advocating for a more consolidated, standardized architecture is that much of the current decentralized network dates back to the 1980s and is incapable of meeting the challenge posed by modern cybersecurity threats from well-funded nation states and coordinated groups of attackers.

Sager, who generally favors network consolidation, said that while it may ultimately create a "shinier target" for malicious hackers, it also creates an opportunity to better build security into the design of the architecture. He said he has become convinced that modernization and consolidation of security is a better play than the decentralized status quo that has led to "unmanaged chaos" at some agencies and across the federal government.

"If you think of [the federal IT architecture] as a large-scale system, you want to bring things together centrally, manage them in a confederated way and make sure you're not being brought down by the weakest partner in your enterprise," said Sager.

While discussing the security implications of cloud adoption at the AFCEA conference, Chris Cummiskey, CEO of Cummiskey Strategic Solutions and former deputy undersecretary for management at the Department of Homeland Security, alluded to this problem.

"It won't make much of a difference if we just do the same thing with cloud computing that we do with data centers: just stove pipes all over the place," he said.

Beyond the security benefits, some proponents of the consolidated approach believe that the data and network silos in the federal government today are products of larger management and business process silos, where technology often takes a back seat to institutional turf battles.

The government has worked to address this problem through a series of moves -- like the creation of a federal chief information security officer and the recent elevation of Cyber Command -- that are in part designed to break down barriers and increase coordination among its various cybersecurity resources.

Mark Forman, global head of public sector at Unisys and former e-government director in the George W. Bush administration, said that IT modernization is about more than upgrading to newer tech. To fully combat modern cyber threats and improve services, agencies must "get rid of the silos, the real constraints on the business" of government.

A consolidated IT architecture, then, could then potentially mark a significant step in the direction of reconfiguring those business processes with technology as one of the main drivers of change. Proponents believe this approach will not only allow for a more centralized and coordinated defense of critical government systems and data, but it could also fundamentally reshape the way the federal government delivers services.

"Modernization is all about a purpose. That purpose relates to the mission of government and is tied to the lives of people who are helped by government," said Dan Chenok, a former senior official at the Office of Management and Budget and director of the Center for the Business of Government at IBM. "The reason you're modernizing is so that you can provide better services to people."

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.