Departing US-CERT boss to launch cyber venture firm

In an exclusive interview with FCW, Ann Barron-DiCamillo talked encryption, the OPM hack and her legacy as director of the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team.

LinkedIn image: Ann Barron-DiCamillo.

Ann Barron-DiCamillo is leaving US-CERT to launch a venture capital firm to fund cybersecurity technologies.

The departing leader of the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team will launch a venture capital firm next week to fund cybersecurity technologies she said are sorely needed.

"We're really trying to help influence the current cyber landscape," retiring US-CERT Director Ann Barron-DiCamillo said of her new firm.

Her more than three years as head of DHS' team of first responders to hacks public and private have taught her that security for devices at the edge of a network is lacking. In particular, she said, there is a clear need to prevent hackers from delivering malware via online ads.

"It's difficult to find a product that helps with the content delivery of that right now in a way that's scalable," Barron-DiCamillo said in an exclusive interview with FCW.

The vast array of cyber intrusions US-CERT has responded to on her watch have tended to include some aspect of endpoint security, she said. For example, intruders have used spear phishing to drop malware on a device and obtain credentials to then hack into a more central network, Barron-DiCamillo said.

Better endpoint security "would greatly reduce the incidents that we respond to" at US-CERT, she added.

Two seasoned cybersecurity hands will join Barron-DiCamillo in setting up the firm, dubbed Strategic Cyber Ventures: Tom Kellermann, chief cybersecurity officer at Trend Micro, and Hank Thomas, a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton. Politico was the first to report Kellermann's involvement in the new firm. He will serve as CEO, Thomas as COO and Barron-DiCamillo as CTO, according to the firm's website.

"All three of us have cyber operational backgrounds, and I think having a venture capital group that's run by actual cyber operators is really unique and is a differentiator," Barron-DiCamillo said.

The company will have "a pretty healthy" level of funding from various private equity sources to draw on, Barron-DiCamillo said, declining to name a dollar figure.

Strategic Cyber Ventures will also be international in scope; the booming markets in Britain and Israel will be on Barron-DiCamillo's radar.

"I think there are some great technologies that are coming out of both of those domestic spaces that fit in with what I see as...growth areas for cyber," she said. Some Israeli firms in particular have developed "borderline offensive" cyber capabilities, Barron-DiCamillo added.

US-CERT and encryption

Barron-DiCamillo joins a handful of top DHS cybersecurity officials who have left for the private or not-for-profit sectors in recent years. She sees the close interaction with industry required of DHS as smoothing that transition.

"We work so closely with industry as opposed to some other national security players, and so I think that it's more of a natural fit to go from DHS back into industry," she said. US-CERT, for example, disseminates vulnerability alerts to industry based on the agency's analysis.

US-CERT's defensive mission makes it easier to pitch collaboration on information sharing to U.S. companies, she added. Being a network defender also means having a different take than other parts of the government on the ever-escalating debate about law enforcement access to encrypted communications.

DHS has law enforcement components such as Customs and Border Protection and the Secret Service, which makes it "difficult for DHS to come out with a consistent message" on encryption, she said. US-CERT's position is clear, however: "We're continuing to encourage the community to adopt end-to-end encryption," Barron-DiCamillo said, noting potential vulnerabilities introduced by backdoors.

Her last day at DHS will be Feb. 22. But she'll have one more, perhaps unenviable task after that. She is testifying at a Feb. 24 hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the devastating breach of Office of Personnel Management systems that compromised data on some 22 million Americans. Barron-DiCamillo will be the DHS technical expert alongside OPM CIO Donna Seymour, who has been in the crosshairs of Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). OPM Acting Director Beth Cobert will testify the following day on the new security clearance regime set up after the OPM hack, according to an OPM spokesperson.

The OPM breach was a scarring, all-hands-on-deck episode for federal cybersecurity professionals. Barron-DiCamillo estimated that during the government's response to the hack, US-CERT had five to 15 specialists at any given time working on the case. (The National Security Agency's Information Assurance Directorate had about eight to 10 specialists on the cleanup.) The agency took gigabytes’ worth of data from the hack -- malware and network traffic -- to a lab to analyze.

Barron-DiCamillo said one of her achievements as US-CERT director was ensuring that the government learned from breaches like the one at OPM. She is also proud of the fact that a cyber training program for the DHS workforce grew up on her watch. The program now tailors training to various skillsets and has solid funding, she said.

Asked if she had any regrets, Barron-DiCamillo said she wishes she could see to fruition programs she has helped build, such as an automated information-sharing scheme. But she won't have much time to dwell on that; her new venture will officially launch next week.

Note: This article was updated on Feb. 20 to correct the date of OPM Acting Director Cobert's scheduled congressional testimony.

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