Why PPD-41 is evolutionary, not revolutionary

Government cybersecurity officials say the presidential policy directive codifies cyber incident response protocols but doesn't radically change what's been in practice in recent years.

Shutterstock image: cyber defense.
 

The Obama administration released Presidential Policy Directive 41 in July to clarify roles and responsibilities in response to a major cyber incident, but it has yet to be put to the test and questions remain whether it substantially changes what has been in practice to this point.

A panel at the Army Cyber Institute's CyCon U.S. conference in Washington, including officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, agreed that PPD-41 codifies the collaboration and best practices that have evolved in response to recent major cyber attacks.

"It does provide clarity with regard to the roles... and how communications would be coordinated," said Tonya Ugoretz, director of the Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. "It also provides for a sense of urgency and the level at which a significant cyber incident would be addressed, because as the PPD notes, the majority of the incidents that occur can be handled through existing relationships and procedures and policies, and it's not like the PPD introduces something radically different, what it does is focus attention and focus level of effort."

Lucia Ziobro, section chief Cyber Operational Engagement at the FBI, said that PPD-41 has led to more governmentwide practice in tabletop exercises, "to get better for when a real event occurs," she said.

"I think there was a period in history, recent history, when the issue was, 'who's in charge?'" said Richard Schaeffer, former director of Information Assurance at the NSA. "I think today where we are is one of 'how do we work together and what position do we play in the game from whatever agency, department we come from?'"

Phyllis Schneck, deputy under secretary for cybersecurity and communications in DHS's National Protection and Programs Directorate, said that the U.S. is confronting adversaries unconstrained by the rule of law who "have a ton of money and they are eating our lunch." She said PPD-41 helps the U.S. get its agility back in part because it clarifies roles and responsibilities that can be difficult to hammer out in the rush of a major incident response.

Ziobro added that PPD-41 also takes steps to encourage the private sector to report cyber attacks to law enforcement.

"It's important that the private industry knows how to engage with the government, what it looks like, how their intellectual property, their business processes and reputation are going to be protected when they do call us," said Ziobro.

She and other panelists said one of the challenges has been to incentivize industry to reach out to government and to provide reasonable protections to companies that report breaches. Ziobro noted that PPD-41 does include principles that respect and protect industry.

She said that companies that report breaches will be treated as victims. In cases where companies might have violated regulations that contributed to or were discovered during the breach, the FBI will inform regulators that the company is cooperating with the investigation, and if it leads to a prosecution, there are strict criteria to protect the company's intellectual property, trade secrets and reputation.

Richard Schaeffer said he believes that PPD-41 focuses on and provides clarity for larger corporations, but the bulk of American businesses are smaller entities that have little to no cyber staff, awareness or practices, and they don't know how to interact with government.

"If I'm an entity in the private sector… I only care about three things -- who do I call, when do I call them, and what should my expectations be when I call them?" he said, pointing out that PPD-41 doesn't make that entirely clear to smaller businesses.

Schaeffer said another challenge not clearly solved by PPD-41 is that many businesses don't see the value in working with the government and sharing information. He said that the government needs to make clear to businesses, especially small businesses, that it is in their interest to collaborate with government.

Phyllis Schneck said that it makes sense to have the response plan biased towards large companies and banks since that's where the greatest harm can take place, but, "there's a lot to be said for these small to medium business that are harboring a huge amount of threat that we're not seeing, a large piece of our situational awareness is just dark."

She said that's one of the problems not solved by PPD-41 – the fact that so many small organizations have been infected with malware that is lying in wait and can be activated and work its upstream into larger systems. "We're not seeing what's hanging out there, we're not seeing even the chronic quiet threat," she said.

Still, the conversation remains largely academic as there has yet to be an incident that has triggered the activation of a PPD-41 response. And, the panelists said they expect the response plan to continue to evolve. "I think we'll see some future presidential position paper… or some other mechanism to codify refinements," said Schaeffer.

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