Filling in the blanks on GSA's cyber-response campus

Experts say cyber-response consolidation is a laudable goal, but warn that it is also fraught with potential problems.

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The General Services Administration's idea of combining some public-facing cyber incident response operations under a single multi-agency roof appeals to security experts, but success could hinge on how GSA fills in the blanks in its broad outline.

In early March, GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini requested $35 million to begin planning the design of a civilian cyber campus that would co-locate cyber incident response teams from multiple civilian agencies, including the departments of Homeland Security and Justice.

In a March 4 conference call with reporters on the administration's fiscal 2015 budget, Tangherlini said the request aims to move those teams out of more than 600,000 square feet of leased office space in the Washington, D.C., area and consolidate them in a yet-to-be-identified federally owned building in the region.

The plan "is in the early stages," Tangherlini said, but money now being spent to support multiple cyber-incident response activities at separate agency offices could be reduced substantially if those operations housed together at a central campus. The plan would not be part of DHS's ongoing headquarters consolidation at the St. Elizabeth's campus in southeastern Washington, he added.

Tangherlini explained the $35 million allocation in the agency's Federal Buildings Fund construction and acquisition program was aimed at getting a sense of what consolidated cyber-incident response activities would look like and what kind of facilities consolidated teams would need, with an eye to where those operations might be housed.

He did not specify exactly which response operations within DHS and DoJ might be involved, however.

Both DHS and GSA both declined further comment on the idea, but GSA's budget proposal sheds a bit more light on the initial parameters of the plan. It names cyber-incident response operations within DHS's National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) and the FBI as principal leads on the initiative. Other DHS components that might be involved, according to the budget documents, include the Office of Intelligence and Analysis and the Secret Service. The proposal also leaves room to allow civilian cyber protection efforts to co-locate at the facility.

Cybersecurity experts said such a consolidation could provide more cohesion and synergy to the current patchwork of public-facing cyber-incident response efforts.

Currently, companies large and small, as well as individuals, can contact a number of agencies to report cyberattacks, including the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center. The Secret Service has said it is often the first agency to learn of large breaches at banks and companies, sharing that information through its National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, Information Sharing and Analysis Centers, Electronic Crime Task Forces and other means.

"The GSA's plan to physically bring together federal agencies' and private industry's cybersecurity incident response teams creates the necessary synergy to increase collaboration and efficiency for federal IT security," Brent Conran, McAffee's chief security officer, said in a statement to FCW.

Why co-locate?

According to GSA, the proposed cyber-response campus has the following overall goals:

  • Create a centralized, visible, civilian-led organization that presents a globally fused cyber capability.
  • Ensure scalability to accommodate future needs.
  • Promote secure collaboration while leveraging shared capabilities and infrastructure.
  • Enhance public-private cooperation with increased opportunities for collaboration.
  • Optimize federal capital, human and physical resources.
  • Develop a working environment to support the recruitment, development, and retention of best-in-class cyber professionals.

"I have experienced first-hand the positive benefits that this level of teamwork, coupled with accessing a variety of organizations for expertise, can realize," he said, noting that his company's operational risk management activities operate in a similar fashion. "McAfee employees work physically, and virtually, side-by-side with government agencies, law enforcement organizations and other stakeholders to ensure the collective security of their assets."

"Since this is in a GSA budget request, we naturally focus on what's proposed to be built," said Gus Coldabella, a former DHS deputy general counsel, now a litigation partner at Goodwin Procter, where he focuses on complex civil litigation and advises on national and homeland security law and policy. "But let's look at the big picture. ...This is not just about a campus. It's about promoting coordination, customer service and government responsiveness to cyberattacks."

"Having a cross-agency team under one roof can give victims a one-stop shop for working with the government. It can ensure we put the best team on the problem, whatever agencies they're from," he said. "And including the private sector allows quicker info sharing about what the bad guys are doing."

Tony Sager, former chief operating officer at the National Security Agency, told FCW at a recent cybersecurity event that while increased collaboration borne of proximity can be valuable, practical concerns can bring a tangle of complications. "Getting there is a problem," he said.

For instance, Sager noted, legacy IT systems supporting individual response operations would probably have to be accommodated. Some legacy IT support systems might have to be rebuilt or significantly adjusted to work with other systems in a combined environment.

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