Experts split on the federal cyber sprint

Cybersecurity managers are divided on whether a 30-day cybersecurity "sprint" actually strengthened the government's defenses, according to a new study.

Shutterstock image: cyber defense.

The month-long cybersecurity sprint in 2015 that had federal agencies taking stock of their security postures in the wake of the massive Office of Personnel Management data breach didn't do much, at least according to half the experts polled by the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium and KPMG.

In a survey released at the (ISC)2 cybersecurity conference on May 19, 52 percent of a pool of 54 executive-level government officials and contractors said the cyber sprint had not enhanced overall security for federal information systems. Furthermore, 12 percent of that 52 percent strongly disagreed that the cyber sprint had improved cybersecurity.

(ISC)2 and KPMG conducted the survey in March through in-person and online interviews to get a sense of the state of enterprisewide cybersecurity. They found that many agencies are prioritizing multifactor authentication, defenses against insider threats and basic cyber hygiene as direct responses to the OPM breach. But one-quarter of the respondents said they had made no changes in response to the OPM breach.

Additionally, the study found that 59 percent of respondents' agencies struggle "to understand how cyberattackers could potentially breach their systems," and 41 percent weren't sure where their key assets are located.

However, there was a flip side to some of the negative numbers: Feelings about government efforts to improve are almost as strong. Specifically, 48 percent said the cyber sprint had improved cybersecurity, and 13 percent "strongly" agreed that it had made a difference.

In a "reality check" session, cyber executives discussed the split opinion.

"Many didn't see the cyber sprint as beneficial," said Tony Hubbard, a principal in KPMG's Federal Advisory practice and cybersecurity lead. "So many are overwhelmed with requirements and mandates, this was one more to focus on. People are in a tough spot, having to do operations [and] watch for breaches. This is another mandate to follow with limited resources."

Janice Haith, deputy CIO at the Navy Department, said cyber incidents and responses have forced her agency to take a fresh look at its cybersecurity efforts. The department has focused in particular on cleaning up its basic cyber hygiene as a result of a cybersecurity scorecard a year ago, for instance.

David Shearer, CEO of (ISC)2, said the armed forces might have an easier time implementing such directives because they are structured to implement top-down orders. "The civilian side isn't command and control," he added.

Another nagging issue is money. Sixty-five percent of respondents said lack of funding was one of the top three factors hindering cybersecurity advancement.

Without funding, getting good IT and cybersecurity employees is a challenge, Haith said. When it comes to IT salaries, "we're not competitive," she added.

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