A "Temporarily Out of Service" sign is seen on a gas pump after a ransomware cyberattack causes Colonial Pipeline to shut down, resulting in gas shortages in Washington D.C, on May 12, 2021.

A "Temporarily Out of Service" sign is seen on a gas pump after a ransomware cyberattack causes Colonial Pipeline to shut down, resulting in gas shortages in Washington D.C, on May 12, 2021. Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

US Companies Won’t Pay to Prepare for Cyber Attacks. Congress Must Step In

A combination of funding and regulation is needed to boost the defenses and resilience of the corporations that America depends on.

Even as ransomware and other attacks grow in frequency and severity, America’s corporations remain loath to spend money until they get hit. As foreign adversaries learn to paralyze ever-larger swaths of the online networks our society, economy, and defense rely upon, this is no longer a tenable approach. 

Though they would never admit to it in public, many CEOs reckon that the certain cost of improving their firms’ cyber defenses is greater than the unknowable future financial pain of post-incident cleanup. In the absence of specific, direct threats to their businesses’ information technology assets, the most attractive option is often to do as little as possible. Compounding the problem, shareholders easily forgive and forget corporate cybersecurity negligence. There is an understandable, but incorrect public perception that businesses becoming victims of data breaches or ransomware attacks is somehow inevitable. Therefore, who could blame shareholders for overlooking what most cybersecurity professionals would otherwise label malpractice in firms’ IT departments?

The National Security Agency and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency say businesses need detailed resilience plans to mitigate the growing threat of cyberattacks. They need manual controls that can operate their systems when automated controls seize up. They need to establish separate, secure communication networks to use when their internal systems are penetrated. They need detailed data backup and recovery plans, and so on. Unfortunately, none of this will be possible if C-suite executives remain unwilling to cover more than the bare minimum to improve their firms’ cyber defenses.

For President Biden, who has called for improving American cybersecurity as a candidate and as president, getting businesses to improve their protection is the central challenge. Fortunately, his administration and Congress are on a spending binge to help the U.S. economy emerge from the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. The public supports this as well. If the recent spate of high-profile ransomware attacks is any indication of things to come, then assigning at least some of the billions allocated for COVID-19 relief toward private-sector cybersecurity would be a wise investment. Better hardware, software, and training—all of it is needed and urgently.

The more difficult fight will be for Congress to pass legislation that backstops this funding. Recent events make clear that corporate America needs a legislative push to improve its cybersecurity posture. Congress—not state legislatures—is the correct venue in which to pursue this objective. The European Union’s proposed Digital Operational Resilience Act, which sets stringent yet reasonable reporting standards for risk management and incident response in the financial sector, offers a rough model for Congressional committee staffers to follow in developing complementary legislation in the United States. 

Improving our nation’s cybersecurity requires a whole-of-society effort. The majority of corporate executives have demonstrated that they cannot, and will not, rise to the occasion. It now falls to the Biden administration and Congress to move them in the right direction.