Winter Is Here, But the US is Not Ready for Cyber War

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How can DHS and Congress protect HBO and Equifax when they're slow to protect their own '.gov' domains?

As HBOGames of Thrones thunderously concluded its season teasing the long-awaited battle between the armies of the living and the dead, a different kind of war has emerged outside of the writers’ imagination. Last month, in perhaps what has become a sign of the times, HBO admitted that hackers had broken into its internal networks, stole significant data, and demanded ransoms in exchange for not releasing “several shows, scripts, internal emails, and personal contact information for the Game of Thrones cast.”

HBO’s hack is merely just the latest in a sustained, decade-long series of high-profile commercial cyberattacks that include Sony Pictures, Target, and Google. In each of these cases, the private sector turned to the federal government for help to identify threats, protect their networks, and prevent future attacks.

But how capable is our government’s ability to assist the private sector, when we’re still struggling to defend highly secure government networks from cyber-intrusion, exfiltration, and attack? I served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense during several of the country’s worst cyberattacks, including North Korea’s July 4, 2009, attack against nearly the entire U.S. government email system and the 2014 Chinese hack of the Office of Personnel Management’s records database, amounting to what one expert called “greatest theft of sensitive personnel data in history.” Unfortunately, now in late 2017, badly needed and planned upgrades meant to protect government systems have not arrived on schedule. 

Congress has long been focused on protecting the federal government’s “.gov” domain, from cyberattacks. Nearly a decade ago in 2008, Congress ordered the creation of the National Cybersecurity Protection System, a defensive network of intrusion detection and prevention, analytics, and information sharing that sought  “to secure and defend the federal civilian government’s information technology infrastructure against advanced cyber threats.” While initially intended only for federal agencies at the cabinet level, the availability of .gov has since expanded to lower-level federal agencies and state and local government sites — thus multiplying potential targets for hacking.

Since then, antiquated federal government contracting requirements and a vastly expanded mission-set have resulted in a delayed, decentralized, patchwork cybersecurity system operationally known as EINSTEIN. It has glaring holes. So, Congress directed the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, to overhaul EINSTEIN and consolidate the federal government’s efforts, resulting in a new suite of platforms and protocols called “DOMino,” extending protections to over 100 civilian agencies. Unfortunately, DHS has been unable roll out this program due to a long-running contract award protest

The White House has proved little help. President Donald Trump’s proposed DHS budget would cut the .gov cybersecurity program by $74 million, despite former DHS Secretary John Kelly telling Congress he’d like to see an increase. An ongoing DHS cyber assessment may jumpstart other efforts to protect networks, including in the areas of cloud, mobile, and other technologies, but there’s little chance DHS can operate at the requisite net-speed when the White House has failed to nominate a replacement for Kelly or leadership for the National Protection and Programs Directorate, which is responsible for DHS’s cybersecurity operations and policy.

And while cyberattacks might result in embarrassment to HBO or serious problems for government operations, they can also have real world consequences both for international security and domestic politics. This past June, several countries were affected by a massive cyberattack, particularly in Ukraine, disrupting government computers, freezing bank cards and ATMs, and shutting down hospitals.  At the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site, officials even had to switch to manual radiation level monitoring. These physical attacks have become an established part of the toolkit for state-sponsored actors. Nations like Russia, China, and North Korea use them against other countries to threaten their national security, steal intelligence, and influence their citizens. In addition to their 2016 hacks of the DNC and Clinton campaign, Russian government hackers also carried out similar attacks in order to interfere with recent elections in France, while Germany has blamed the Moscow for cyberattacks ahead of their elections this month. Despite being appointed by a president who struggles to separate fact from fantasy, even Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats recently admitted that he had no doubt that Russia’s ultimate objective was to “undermine Western democracy.” Cyberattacks have now become weapons of war.

With the U.S. government, allies, and American companies under siege from cyberattacks, their low cost and high impact – as well as the absence of any proportionate response – ensures that cyberattacks only are likely to become more frequent, particularly as internet-connected devices become increasingly integrated into our lives. The next attack won’t just stop at our elections or financial institutions, but could be on our infrastructure, satellites, smart devices, or our military. 

For over a decade, Congress has worked to empower DHS to ensure that protection of the .gov domain is a reality. But given the White House’s lack of interest combined with proposed budget cuts, DHS doesn’t have the resources to implement what Congress told it to do.

Congress must remind the Trump administration that securing the government’s networks is a priority for our nation. Hold member-briefings, a public hearing on rollout of DOMino, or at least work to simplify acquisition regulations within the agency – just do something. There’s never been a more important time for Congress to fill this leadership vacuum and with so many competing priorities, cybersecurity should be something everyone can agree on.

Alex Wagner served as chief of staff to the 22nd Secretary of the Army and is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project.

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