Let us count the ways the U.S. is falling behind in cybersecurity

March 30, 2021, 8:21 PM UTC

President Joe Biden said he plans to make cybersecurity a “top priority” of his administration. But by all appearances, the U.S. is off to a troublingly slow start in responding to, and recovering from, recent major hacks—foremost among them being the SolarWinds debacle.

Let us count the many ways the U.S. is falling behind in digital defense.

  • The Homeland Security Department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA—the government agency most responsible for coordinating private and public sector bounce-backs from breaches—still lacks a leader. (Chris Krebs, the founding director, was fired last year by former President Donald Trump after he disputed Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud.) While CISA has made several appointments this year, it doesn’t yet have even a nominee for the top job.
  • Although the government recently passed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that earmarks $650 million for CISA, officials fear much more funding will be required for CISA to tackle the many tasks at hand, including rooting out cyber threats across federal networks. Andy Keiser, a former House Intelligence Committee staffer who keeps in close touch with the CISA team, tells Politico that the agency is “overworked, understaffed and in one sense fighting half-blindfolded.”
  • Some people argue that since intelligence agencies, like the National Security Agency, are legally restricted from surveilling domestic networks, attackers can more easily escape detection when they use U.S. IT infrastructure in the course of their espionage (as was the case in the SolarWinds campaign). Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates writes for the Washington Post that he believes the solution is to appoint a “dual hat” Homeland Security official as a deputy director at the National Security Agency, thereby marrying tech skills (NSA) with legal authority (DHS).
  • The Biden administration still has not appointed a National Cyber Director, a new, prominent role that is supposed to coordinate the government’s cybersecurity activities. Choosing a strong leader for the job was the No. 1 recommendation Fortune made in a list of cyber policy proposals we offered the Biden administration earlier this year. Apparently, political infighting is the cause for delay: Biden’s top cyber advisor, Anne Neuberger, and the top contender for the role, Jen Easterly, a Biden transition team advisor, “do not get along,” as one official tells Politico. (Also, the Biden team reportedly objects to the directorship being subject to congressional oversight.)

That so many cybersecurity experts cannot agree on basic matters—how best to secure U.S. computer networks, who should lead the defensive charge, or whether certain jobs, like National Cyber Director, should even exist—helps explain the halting pace at which cybersecurity policy is proceeding. Surely, it’s better to move slowly than to move quickly and risk making mistakes.

But time is of the essence, and every delay puts America’s adversaries further ahead.

Robert Hackett

Twitter: @rhhackett



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