What cyber risks will Biden's supply chain EO uncover?

The administration has ordered a wide-ranging assessment of the risks to various supply chain. Analysts, former government officials and industry say a large workforce gap and problematic frameworks are among the threats cybersecurity poses to the country's supply chains.

As more details have emerged about the breach into federal agencies involving SolarWinds Orion, senior administration officials and analysts have started calling the incident a "supply chain attack." While the government continues to assess the scope and scale of that breach, the White House is now directing various executive departments to assess the risks in their respective supply chains.

The executive order calls for both 100-day immediate reviews of certain products -- such as semiconductors and high-capacity batteries -- as well as year-long sectoral supply chain reviews of the defense, health, transportation and agriculture industries, among others.

All these industries share a need for cybersecurity and the president has it made a point to call it out as a top priority. But what will various departments find when they examine the cybersecurity risks to their supply chains?

"Most likely what will happen is we will find what we already know which is that these industries are all incredibly cyber vulnerable," said Kathryn Waldron, a cybersecurity expert at the R Street Institute. "They're all incredibly attractive targets for malicious actors and that probably their cybersecurity is not as good as they think."

The White House will discover fundamental problems with the public and private sector's ability to assess their cybersecurity postures as well as a worsening workforce gap, according to analysts, former government officials and industry representatives.

"We don't really have a lot of great metrics or systems of measurement for cybersecurity and so I think actually determining whether or not an industry has a good cybersecurity posture in general is not something that we're really able to do well as a country both from a government standpoint but also maybe from an industry standpoint," Waldron continued.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology offers a cybersecurity assessment framework for organizations, but Waldron said frameworks are not always reliable because they can be implemented incorrectly and don't provide an understanding of how to adapt to new threats.

Chris White, a former contractor for the National Security Agency and now an executive at BlueVoyant, said the reviews will likely conclude that most industries lack the data to confirm they have sufficient cybersecurity controls protecting their supply chain.

"There will be a big fat goose egg of, well, we were able to understand that we know there's a problem, we know there is risk, but we have no insight into how to measure that risk" or how to reduce it, he told FCW.

White also argued the cybersecurity frameworks currently available are not up to par. In many cases, he said, they aim to establish "comprehensive, mutually-exclusive, perfect requirements," making them unwieldy and complicated to explain to the executives who will make decisions about how to invest in cybersecurity.

But he did praise NIST for making a framework understandable by everyone from low-level engineers to top executives.

"We all need to be reading from the same sheet of music," he said. "I think the call to action here is the need for a standard that solves the critical problem that NIST solved which was it can be universally interpreted by engineers at the low technical level, but … be boiled up into a very simple message surrounded by five concepts that any board anywhere can understand."

Another issue will be visibility, according to Blake Moore, formerly chief of staff for the Pentagon's CIO and now a vice president at Wickr. He described the various levels of a programmatic supply chain, starting at a developer creating a piece of software all the way to the integration of a system-of-systems.

"If you walk that chain back, it exponentially grows as far as the potential avenues of vulnerability as you move further down the supply chain," he said. "I think they're going to realize that visibility across the entire process needs to be clear and right now we simply don't have that."

The reviews aside, a senior administration official told reporters March 12 the White House is already planning to implement a policy that would label some consumer devices as having sufficient cybersecurity standards as well as a grading system for software companies that sell products to government. The policies are expected to be released through another executive order in the coming weeks.

Whether industry will accept the new regulations by executive order or try to challenge the administration's authority to enact such policies remains an open question.

Kevin Gronberg, vice president of policy and government affairs at Security Scorecard, a company that uses open-source data to assess the strength of an organization's cybersecurity, said the executive agencies have likely not been able to assess their vendors at an individual level just due to the large number of contractors.

"What are they going to see? They're going to see what everybody sees which is that there's a tremendous number of vendors and there's going to be a wide swath of those that are taking cybersecurity seriously… and then there's going to be a select few that are not taking their security as seriously as they can or should," he said.

Another well documented issue in cybersecurity is the workforce gap.

Data compiled by CyberSeek, a project that tracks the cybersecurity workforce and is backed by NIST and the Department of Commerce, found that between October 2019 and September 2020 approximately 520,000 cybersecurity-related positions appeared in online job listings. By comparison, it estimated in the same time period that around 940,000 people held cybersecurity positions across the country.

"Not only do they not have the technical people, they don't have the operations and policy people," said Mike McConnell, the former director of the National Security Agency under President George H.W. Bush and director of national intelligence under President George Bush.

To fix that issue at a national level, McConnell said, the administration would need to fund scholarships. But funding students willing to study cybersecurity is not the only fix required.

"The civilian servant system that was created in the middle of the last century" isn't going to close the workforce gap, said Ron Sanders, formerly the chair of the Federal Salary Council. Sanders now works with McConnell as staff director of the Florida Center for Cybersecurity based at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Public sector jobs in high-demand fields such as cybersecurity have traditionally paid less than the private sector, Sanders said, creating a situation where companies can effectively poach talent by offering higher salaries and reimbursing the government for a student's scholarship funding.

McConnell said part of the problem lies in senior officials who have not fully come to grips with how dependent the country is on digital infrastructure and the threats that a nation state or extremist group poses to it.

"As a nation, we have not yet embraced the full understanding of the significance of our vulnerability," he said.

This article first appeared on FCW, a Defense Systems partner site. 

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