De-complicating cybersecurity at the federal level [Commentary]

635578734906915360-insiderjpg.jpg

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.’” ~President Ronald Reagan

It might seem like hyperbole to claim that anything the government does hinders, and doesn’t help, progress. I’d like to think differently, but my experience gives President Reagan’s statement a certain level of credibility. Too many times, government agencies are convinced that doing things on a large scale will solve individual problems or issues. This attitude leads to massive delays and a lack of attention to the small but important details.

Making Simple Things Complex

During my tenure at the Pentagon, it was almost impossible to develop, coordinate, authorize and publish any policy within two years. Even if a proposed policy was extremely important, it just took too long to implement. If the Department of Defense has such issues in developing policy, then consider how difficult it must be to develop and publish policies that span across the entire spectrum of the government.

Governments inherently make simple things complex, and complicate obviously simple tasks. Because of this, I inherently question any program driven by a government agency or organization that claims it is “here to help.”

Large scale government programs are often initiated to create cost effectiveness, but what is the cost if the program takes years to develop and implement? Even worse, the fast-paced cycle of technological advances makes measuring program development in terms of years a huge problem. The opportunity costs coming from a breach or system downtime far outweigh any fiscal savings. Add in the fact that many government agencies will fight for ownership of a large program because of the concomitant funding, and you’ll see why relatively simple matters can spiral out of control very easily.

That’s not to say there isn’t a benefit in government ownership. There are potential cost savings tied to having overarching policies executed by a single entity, but the coordination and time lapse in enacting anything of value is suspect. It takes too long to enact and follow through, especially when most agencies have their own congressionally driven budget and appropriations process to consider.

A Multi-faceted Issue

Over the years, I have heard many agencies state that they cannot consider creating an insider threat program or cybersecurity program because they don’t have the budget, or that they are waiting for a parent agency to come up with a plan and associated instructions. The problem with this thought process is multi-faceted. First, no two federal organizations are alike. They all have differing processes, serve diverse populations, and also possess assorted and sundry critical value data.

Second, each of these variables means that one insider threat or cybersecurity solution doesn’t fit another organization’s needs. Finally, the budgetary and appropriations cycles are controlled by Congress, subjecting them to political realities and consequences.

In these circumstances, when I hear that the government is telling agencies what they must do while controlling the budget from afar, it’s creating a difficult problem for the agencies to solve. Furthermore, when I hear that one agency is dependent upon another to proceed in developing insider threat programs or cybersecurity solutions, it rings of the “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” idiom. In other words, no action will be taken in sufficient time to counter any threat.

Solving at the Highest Level

My solution for this might sound a bit controversial.

Cybersecurity threats are comingled with insider threats. At a fundamental level, too many people believe that technology alone is the answer to cybersecurity concerns. I’ve mentioned it before, it’s not just about technology. Yet that’s the first thing people think of when considering cybersecurity or insider threats. Maybe it’s thanks to Hollywood’s portrayal of the industry and the capabilities of high-powered computers connected to, well, everything.

When it comes down to it, though, we’re dealing primarily with a people problem before a technical problem. People use technology to becoming cybersecurity and insider threats. They also use low-tech tactics like social engineering and dumpster diving, too. Until the government realizes these concepts are connected, and that it can’t just purchase tools to address their vulnerabilities, it will always lag behind the threat.

That’s the conceptual portion of the solution. Tactically, the government should elevate decision making for the cybersecurity/insider threat problem to a Cabinet-level position, which would signify the importance of the issue. Additionally, the Cybersecurity Cabinet person should adhere to the mantra of centralized administration, de-centralized execution. Making each agency responsible for executing its own cybersecurity and insider threat program will encourage much faster implementation countering these threats. Of course, Congress would have to be included in any solution to ensure success.

This may not be the best fiscal option, but it would certainly be the best method for quick implementation and execution required to protect government-held and controlled critical value data. Rather than one agency doing everything, make each agency responsible for creating, implementing, and running individual programs, and hold them accountable at the highest level possible.

Keith Lowry is the senior vice president of Nuix USG and Nuix’s Business Threat Intelligence and Analysis division. He served as chief of staff to the deputy undersecretary of defense for human intelligence, counterintelligence and security at the Pentagon, as well as an information security consultant in the private sector.