The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has become the lead agency in the federal government for cyber security. DHS’s responsibility to protect against cyber threats has evolved significantly from early days of the Department and its creation under the Homeland Security Act of 2002.
DHS’s integral role in cyber preparedness, response and resilience are now accepted by other federal agencies, including the leadership of the defense and intelligence agencies. General Keith Alexander, Commander of USCYBERCOM and Director of the National Security Agency (NSA) noted recently that it is appropriate to put DHS in “the middle” of the issue. DHS, as a civilian agency, should take a leading role in safeguarding the nation’s cybersecurity preparedness. The Department of Defense (DOD) retains responsibility for offensive cybersecurity capabilities, including cyber warfare.
Retiring DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano affirmed in one of her last speeches that cyberspace is fundamentally a civilian space — and a civilian benefit — that employs partnerships with the private sector. She recommended that DHS continue to build up the nation’s cybersecurity posture and warned that “our country will, at some point, face a major cyber-event that will have a serious effect on our lives, our economy, and the everyday functioning of our society.”
The secretary’s comments are insightful on how emerging threats have changed since DHS’s inception. An early focus of DHS was on developing technologies and policies to address weapons of mass destruction (WMD), including bio-terrorism, chemical and radiation/nuclear. Also, threat detection capabilities for transportation (particularly aviation) and interoperable communications capabilities for first responders were key problems at hand. Combatting those threats are all still critical priorities, but addressing cyber threats has become a growing focus by policy makers.
A major reason for this new focus on cybersecurity has been the rapid changes in the information technology landscape. Since 2002, the capabilities and connectivity of cyber devices and communications has grown exponentially. So have the cyber intrusions and threats from malware and hackers, requiring restructuring of priorities and missions. The cyber threat reaches far beyond Al Qaeda, and includes various criminal enterprises and adversarial nation states.
In the past few years, a prime target of cyber intrusions has been the nation’s critical infrastructure, such as financial systems, chemical plants, water and electric utilities, hospitals, communication networks, commercial and critical manufacturing, pipelines, shipping, dams, bridges, highways and buildings. According to DHS Acting Deputy Secretary Rand Beers, in 2012 there were approximately 190,000 cyber incidents involving federal agencies, critical infrastructure and industry partners — an increase of 68 percent from 2011. These incidents are not sector-specific and represent a challenge to preparation, budget and technical resources.
A change in these risk environments has corresponded with a heightened DHS collaboration with other agencies, and especially the private sector stakeholders who own most of the nation’s vital infrastructure. DHS has had to step up assessing situational awareness, information sharing and resilience research and development plans with these stakeholders to mitigate risk and protect critical infrastructure and key resources.
There are multiple executive policy components that clarify DHS’s heightened role in the federal cybersecurity arena. The original enforcement authority in cybersecurity was spelled out under the Homeland Security Act (Section 2010) and reinforced by Homeland Security Presidential Directive 7 (HSPD-7), which stipulated that DHS “serve as a focal point for the security of cyberspace…”
Subsequently, President George W. Bush established the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative (CNCI), pursuant to HSPD-23/NSPD-54. The CNCI laid the foundation for setting goals to meeting the full spectrum of cyber threats and many of the current policies stem from that initiative.
In July 2010, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) assigned DHS the primary responsibilities for overseeing the federal-wide information security program and evaluating its compliance with the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002 (FISMA). DHS is responsible for overseeing the protection of the .gov domain and also for detecting and responding to malicious activities and potential threats. DHS is also charged with annually reviewing the cyber security programs of all federal departments and agencies. The federal interagency Quadrennial Homeland Security Review (QHSR), which recognizes that DHS missions are “enterprise-wide and not limited to the Department of Homeland Security,” provided affirmation of OMB’s declaration.
In 2010, DHS and DOD signed a landmark memorandum of agreement to protect against threats to critical civilian and military computer systems and networks. The DOD acknowledgement of DHS’s centrality in cybersecurity issues made a statement that the services would agree to DHS leadership and cooperate in spite of potential opposition from some in the intelligence community.
This Article first appeared in Government Security News.
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