Many Top Cybersecurity Posts Remain Empty — And Not On Purpose

By Joseph Marks

November 10, 2017

Many top cybersecurity and technology positions remain vacant 10 months into the Trump administration, but that’s not by design, White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Rob Joyce said Thursday.

Those vacant positions—or positions filled on an acting basis—include the federal chief information officer, the federal chief information security officer, the head of the Homeland Security Department’s cybersecurity and infrastructure protection division, and numerous agency CIOs and CISOs.

There’s no guarantee that all of those positions will be filled, but they’re definitely not among the positions President Donald Trump says he’s purposely not filling in order to reduce government bureaucracy, Joyce said during a summit hosted by Defense OneNextgov’s sister publication.

It’s not an intentional emptiness today and not an intentional decision to keep those empty going forward,” Joyce said. “It’s more stacking up the nominations and clearing the decks of the senior-most leaders and ambassadors we’ve got to get through.”

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Once those top officials are confirmed, Joyce said, he expects a “cascade” of tech and cyber officials to reach the Senate for confirmation.

The vacancies in top tech and cyber ranks have made it more challenging to make decisive changes, he said.

Often the new people will come in and will challenge the status quo and allow us to shake things up a bit,” he said.

Coming Soon: More Transparency

The government is weeks away from publicly releasing an updated version of its strategy for deciding whether to tell industry about dangerous computer vulnerabilities or to keep them to spy on U.S. enemies, Joyce said.

The Obama administration released broad information about how and when it discloses cyber vulnerabilities in 2014. That was in the wake of the Heartbleed vulnerability, which sent security watchers into a panic.

The Obama administration didn’t reveal many details about its process, though.

Trump administration officials have been reviewing and updating the Obama disclosure policy and hope to release a public version of it shortly, Joyce said at the Defense One Summit.

Joyce has two goals for the publication, he said.

The first is to demonstrate what criteria the government uses to make disclosure decisions and how it balances national security, like hoarding exploits for spying, with individual security. 

The second goal, Joyce said, is to demonstrate that the intelligence community doesn’t make those decisions on its own.

There’s a lot of fog in ‘Is it just the intel community? Do Commerce, DHS, Defense and other folks have a loud voice?’ They do,” he said.

National Security Agency leaders said in 2015 that the government discloses more than 91 percent of the vulnerabilities it encounters. The figure is still “somewhere in that neighborhood,” Joyce said.

Joyce also acknowledged that recent alleged leaks of government hacking tools from the NSA and CIA inform government’s thinking about vulnerability disclosure.

A group called the Shadow Brokers has released hacking tools allegedly stolen from NSA and WikiLeaks has released a cache of alleged CIA hacking tools under the name Vault 7.

How Much Kaspersky is on Government Systems?

Joyce defended a Homeland Security order that gives agencies three months to begin removing the Russian anti-virus Kaspersky from their systems.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security Committee worried that timeframe was too long. Given the scope of government technology, however, it could be irresponsible to force agencies to move more quickly, Joyce said.

In the meantime, the government is taking other precautions to prevent the anti-virus from doing any harm, he said.

In its May removal order, Homeland Security said it was concerned the Russian government could use Kaspersky to hack into U.S. systems.  

In most cases in which Kaspersky was running on U.S. government systems, it was an add-on in a small division that wasn’t managed by an agency’s main technology office, a situation known as “shadow IT,” Joyce said.

If you look at the absolute percentages and numbers [of Kaspersky running on government systems], the numbers weren’t heinous,” Joyce said. “But they were more than we were comfortable with,” he added.

Some agencies have already removed Kaspersky instances from their systems, he said.

Also during Thursday’s discussion:

By Joseph Marks // Joseph Marks covers cybersecurity for Nextgov. He previously covered cybersecurity for Politico, intellectual property for Bloomberg BNA and federal litigation for Law360. He covered government technology for Nextgov during an earlier stint at the publication and began his career at Midwestern newspapers covering everything under the sun. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Wisconsin in Madison and a master’s in international affairs from Georgetown University.

November 10, 2017