An airman at Port San Antonio goes over systems during an open house for the Air Force's cyber forces.

An airman at Port San Antonio goes over systems during an open house for the Air Force's cyber forces. 24th Air Force

White House Orders Agencies To Beef Up Cyber Defenses 'Immediately'

In the wake of a devastating hack on OPM, the Obama administration is directing agencies to lock down government systems.

The White House has directed all federal agencies to take a series of swift measures to lock down government systems, in the wake of a devastating hack that possibly delivered Chinese spies data that could compromise national security.

A summary of the steps released late Friday evening does not explicitly mention the data breach, which was discovered in April and made public last week. Records on more than 4 million current and former civilian agency and military employees were leaked during the incident, which struck the Office of Personnel Management.

It is believed a second, related attack may have victimized people holding security clearances and those who have been investigated to obtain such clearances.

"Recent events underscore the need to accelerate the administration’s cyber strategy and confront aggressive, persistent malicious actors that continue to target our nation’s cyber infrastructure," Office of Management and Budget officials said in a statement. In addition to OPM, the White House, State Department, U.S. Postal Service were attacked by hackers over the past year.

U.S. Chief Information Officer Tony Scott "recently launched" what officials are calling a 30-day cybersecurity sprint.

According to White House officials, the emergency procedures include:

  • "Immediately" deploying so-called indicators, or tell-tale signs of cybercrime operations, into agency anti-malware tools. Specifically, the indicators contain "priority threat-actor techniques, tactics and procedures" that should be used to scan systems and check logs.
  • Patching critical-level software holes "without delay." Each week, agencies receive a list of these security vulnerabilities in the form of DHS Vulnerability Scan Reports.
  • Tightening technological controls and policies for "privileged users," or staff with high-level access to systems. Agencies should cut the number of privileged users; limit the types of computer functions they can perform; restrict the duration of each user's online sessions, presumably to prevent the extraction of large amounts of data; "and ensure that privileged user activities are logged and that such logs are reviewed regularly."
  • Dramatically accelerating widespread use of  of "multifactor authentication" or two-step ID checks. Passwords alone are insufficient access controls, officials said. Requiring personnel to log in with a smartcard or alternative form of ID can significantly reduce the chances adversaries will pierce federal networks, they added, stopping short of mandating multi-step ID checks.

Agencies must report on progress and problems complying with these procedures within 30 days.

Scott also has created a new task force, a “Cybersecurity Sprint Team,” to lead a month-long review of the federal government's security hygiene practices. Team members include officials from OMB E-Gov Cyber, the National Security Council, Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon.

After the review is completed, more action plans will be distributed that will culminate in a “Federal Civilian Cybersecurity Strategy.”

Agencies have been slow to close vulnerabilities in the past. The mean time last year for an agency to deal with "high findings" flagged by vulnerability scans was 42 days, according to Performance.gov, a federal database that tracks progress in meeting goals. Malicious code was in at least one agency's systems for 126 days. In addition, agencies waited more than two weeks between scans, according to the mean scores.

The federal government has been hit by a barrage of high-profile cyber assaults over the past year. Last March, hackers reportedly from China broke into some OPM databases containing information on security-clearances holders. Later, hackers breached unclassified networks at both the State Department and the White House.

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