Posts tagged congress

Page Content

A Cynic’s Take on Cyber Czars and 60-day Reports

Today, and Before

On July 17, 2008, (then) Senator Barack Obama held a town hall meeting on national security at Purdue University. He and his panel covered issues of nuclear, biological and cyber security. (I blogged about the event here and here.) As part of his remarks at the event, Senator Obama stated:

Every American depends — directly or indirectly — on our system of information networks. They are increasingly the backbone of our economy and our infrastructure; our national security and our personal well-being. But it's no secret that terrorists could use our computer networks to deal us a crippling blow. We know that cyber-espionage and common crime is already on the rise. And yet while countries like China have been quick to recognize this change, for the last eight years we have been dragging our feet.

As President, I'll make cyber security the top priority that it should be in the 21st century. I'll declare our cyber-infrastructure a strategic asset, and appoint a National Cyber Advisor who will report directly to me. We'll coordinate efforts across the federal government, implement a truly national cyber-security policy, and tighten standards to secure information — from the networks that power the federal government, to the networks that you use in your personal lives.

That was a pretty exciting statement to hear!

On February 9, 2009, (now) President Obama appointed Melissa Hathaway as Acting Senior Director for Cyberspace and charged her with performing a comprehensive review of national cyberspace security in 60 days. I interacted with Ms. Hathaway and members of her team during those 60 days (as well as before and after). From my point of view, it was a top-notch team of professionals approaching the review with a great deal of existing expertise and open minds. I saw them make a sincere effort to reach out to every possible community for input.

If you're keeping count, the report was delivered on or about April 10. Then, mostly silence to those of us on the outside. Several rumors were circulated in blogs and news articles, and there was a presentation at the RSA conference that didn't really say much.

Until today: May 29th.

Shortly after 11am EDT, President Obama gave some prepared remarks and his office released the report. In keeping with his July 2008 statement, the President did declare that "our digital infrastructure -- the networks and computers we depend on every day -- will be treated as they should be: as a strategic national asset." However, he did not appoint someone as a National Cyber Advisor. Instead, he announced the position of a "Cybersecurity Coordinator" that will be at a lower level in the Executive Office of the White House. No appointment to that position was announced today, either. (I have heard rumor from several sources that a few high-profile candidates have turned down offers of the position already. Those are only rumors, however.)

The President outlined the general responsibilities and duties of this new position. It apparently will be within the National Security Staff, reporting to the NSC, but also reporting to OMB and the National Economic Council, and working with the Federal CIO, CTO and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The new Coordinator will be charged with

  1. helping develop (yet another) strategy to secure cyberspace. This will include metrics and performance milestones;
  2. coordinating with state and local governments, and with the private sector, "to ensure an organized and unified response to future cyber incidents."
  3. to strengthen ties with the private sector, with an explicit mandate to not set security standards for industry.
  4. to continue to invest in cyber (although the examples he gave were not about research or security
  5. to begin a national campaign to increase awareness and cyber literacy.

The President also made it clear that privacy was important, and that monitoring of private networks would not occur.

Reading Between the Lines

There were a number of things that weren't stated that are also interesting, as well as understanding implications of what was stated.

First of all, the new position is rather like a glorified cheerleader: there is no authority for budget or policy, and the seniority is such that it may be difficult to get the attention of cabinet secretaries, agency heads and CEOs. The position reports to several entities, presumably with veto power (more on that below). Although the President said the appointee will have "regular access" to him, that is not the same as an advisor -- and this is a difference that can mean a lot in Washington circles. Although it is rumor that several high-profile people have already turned down the position, I am not surprised given this circumstance. (And this may be why it has been two months since the report was delivered before this event — they've been trying to find someone to take the job.)

The last time someone was in a role like this with no real authority -- was in 2001 when Howard Schmidt was special adviser for cyberspace security to President G.W.Bush. Howard didn't stay very long, probably because he wasn't able to accomplish anything meaningful beyond coordinating (another) National Plan to Secure Cyberspace. It was a waste of his time and talents. Of course, this President knows the difference between "phishing" and "fission" and has actually used email, but still...

Second, the position reports to the National Economic Council and OMB. If we look back at our problems in cyber security (and I have blogged about them extensively over the last few years, and spoken about them for two decades), many of them are traceable to false economies: management deciding that short-term cost savings were more important than protecting against long-term risk. Given the current stress in the economy I don't expect any meaningful actions to be put forth that cost anything; we will still have the mindset that "cheapest must be best."

Third, there was no mention of new resources. In particular, no new resources for educational initiatives or research. We can pump billions of dollars into the bank accounts of greedy financiers on Wall Street, but no significant money is available for cyber security and defense. No surprise, really, but it is important to note the "follow the money" line -- the NEC has veto power over this position, and no money is available for new initiatives outside their experience.

Fourth, there was absolutely no mention made of bolstering our law enforcement community efforts. We already have laws in place and mechanisms that could be deployed if we simply had the resources and will to deploy them. No mention was made at all about anything active such as this -- all the focus was on defensive measures. Similarly, there was no mention of national-level responses to some of the havens of cyber criminals, nor of the pending changes in the Department of Defense that are being planned.

Fifth, the President stated "Our pursuit of cybersecurity will not -- I repeat, will not include -- monitoring private sector networks or Internet traffic." I suspect that was more than intended to reassure the privacy advocates -- I believe it was "code" for "We will not put the NSA in charge of domestic cyber security." Maybe I'm trying to read too much into it, but this has been a touchy issue in many different communities over the last few months.

There are certainly other things that might be noted about the report, but we should also note some positive aspects: the declaration that cyber is indeed a strategic national asset, that the problems are large and growing, that the existing structures don't work, that privacy is important, and that education is crucial to making the most of cyber going forward.

Of course, Congress ("pro is to con as Progress is to Congress") is an important player in all this, and can either help define a better or solution or stand in the way of what needs to be done. Thus, naming a Cyberspace Coordinator is hardly the last word on what might happen.

But with the perspective I have, I find it difficult to get too excited about the overall announcement. We shall see what actually happens.

The Report

I've read the report through twice, and read some news articles commenting on it. These comments are "off the top" and not necessarily how I'll view all this in a week or two. But what's the role of blogging if I need to think about it for a month, first? cheese

It is important to note that the President's remarks were not the same as the report, although its issuance was certainly endorsed by the White House. The reason I note the difference is that the report identifies many problems that the President's statement does not address (in any way), and includes many "should"s that cannot be addressed by a "coordinator" who has no budget or policy authority.

What is both interesting and sad is how much the new report resembles the largely-inconsequential National Plan to Secure Cyberspace issued under the Bush Administration (be sure to see the article at the link). That isn't a slam on this report -- as I wrote earlier, I think it is a good effort by a talented and dedicated team. What I mean to imply is that the earlier National Plan had some strong points too, but nothing came of it because of cost and prioritization and lack of authority.

There are a number of excellent points made in this report: the international aspects, the possibility of increased liability for poor security products and pratices, the need for involvement of the private sector and local governments, the need for more education, the problems of privacy with security, and more.

I was struck by a few things missing from the report.

First, there was no mention of the need for more long-term, less applied research and resources to support it. This is a critical issue, as I have described here before and has been documented time and again. To its credit, the report does mention a need for better technology transfer, although this is hardly the first time that has been observed; the 2005 PITAC report "Cyber Security: A Crisis of Prioritization" included all of this (and also had minimal impact).

The report had almost nothing to say about increasing resources and support for law enforcement and prosecution. This continues to puzzle me, as we have laws in place and systems that could make an impact if we only made it a priority.

There is no discussion about why some previous attempts and structures -- notably DHS -- have failed to make any meaningful progress, and sometimes have actually hindered better cyber security. Maybe that would be expecting too much in this report (trying not to point fingers), but one can't help but wonder. Perhaps it is simply enough to note that no recommendations are made to locate any of the cyber responsibilities in DHS.

There is some discussion of harmonizing regulations, but nothing really about reviewing the crazy-quilt laws we have covering security, privacy and response. There is one sentence in the report that suggests that seeking new legislation could make things worse, and that is true but odd to see.

As an aside, I bet the discussion about thinking about liability changes for poor security practices and products -- a very reasonable suggestion -- caused a few of the economic advisors to achieve low Earth orbit. That may have been enough to set off the chain of events leading to reporting to the NEC, actually. However, it is a legitimate issue to raise, and one that works in other markets. Some of us have been suggesting for decades that it be considered, yet everyone in business wants to be held blameless for their bad decisions. Look at what has played out with the financial meltdown and TARP and you'll see the same: The businessmen and economists can destroy the country, but shouldn't be held at fault. mad

There is discussion of the supply-chain issue but the proposed solution is basically to ensure US leadership in production -- a laudable goal, but not achievable given the current global economy. We're going to need to change some of our purchasing and vetting habits to really achieve more trustworthy systems — but that won't go over with the economists, either.

There is no good discussion about defining roles among law enforcement, the military, the intelligence community, and private industry in responding to the problems. Yes, that is a snake pit and will take more than this report to describe, but the depth of the challenges could have been conveyed.

As David Wagner noted in email to an USACM committee, there is no prioritization given to help a reader understand which items are critical, which items are important, and which are merely desirable. We do not have the resources to tackle all the problems first, and there is no guidance here on how to proceed.


I didn't intend for this to be a long, critical post about the report and the announcement. I think that this topic is receiving Presidential attention is great. The report is really a good summary of the state of cybersecurity and needs, produced by some talented and dedicated Federal employees. However, the cynic in me fears that it will go the way of all the other fine reports -- many of which I contributed to -- including the PITAC report and the various CSTB reports; that is, it will make a small splash and then fade into the background as other issues come to the fore.

Basically, I think the President had the right intentions when all this started, but the realpolitik of the White House and current events have watered them down, resulting in action that basically endorses only a slight change from the status quo.

I could be wrong. I hope I'm wrong. But experience has shown that it is almost impossible to be too cynical in this area. In a year or so we can look back at this and we'll all know. But what we heard today certainly isn't what Candidate Obama promised last July.

(And as I noted in a previous post, Demotivators seem to capture so much of this space. Here's one that almost fits.)

Cyber security challenges and windmills

[Note: the following is primarily about U.S. Government policies, but I believe several points can be generalized to other countries.]

I was editing a section of my website, when I ran across a link to a paper I had forgotten that I wrote. I'm unsure how many people actually saw it then or since. I know it faded from my memory! Other than CERIAS WWW sites and the AAAS itself, a Google search reveals almost no references to it.

As background, in early April of 2002, I was asked, somewhat at the last moment, to prepare a paper and some remarks on the state of information security for a forum, Technology in a Vulnerable World, held on science in the wake of 9/11. The forum was sponsored by the AAAS, and held later that month. There were interesting papers on public health, risk communication, the role of universities, and more, and all of them are available for download.

My paper in the forum wasn't one of my better ones, in that it was somewhat rushed in preparing it. Also, I couldn't find good background literature for some of what I was writing. As I reread what I wrote, many of the points I raised still don't have carefully documented sources in the open literature. However, I probably could have found some published backup for items such as the counts of computer viruses had I spent a little more time and effort on it. Mea culpa; this is something I teach my students about. Despite that, I think I did capture most of the issues that were involved at the time of the forum, and I don't believe there is anything in the paper that was incorrect at that time.

Why am I posting something here about that paper, One View of Protecting the National Information Infrastructure, written seven years ago? Well, as I reread it, I couldn't help but notice that it expressed some of the same themes later presented in the PITAC report, Cyber Security: A Crisis of Prioritization (2005), the NRC report Towards a Safer and More Secure Cyberspace (2007), and my recent Senate testimony (2009). Of course, many of the issues were known before I wrote my paper -- including coverage in the NRC studies Computers at Risk: Safe Computing in the Information Age (1991), Trust in Cyberspace (1999) and Cybersecurity Today and Tomorrow (2002) (among others I should have referenced). I can find bits and pieces of the same topics going further back in time. These issues seem to be deeply ingrained.

I wasn't involved in all of those cited efforts, so I'm not responsible for the repetition of the issues. Anyone with enough background who looks at the situation without a particular self-interest is going to come up with approximately the same conclusions -- including that market forces aren't solving the problem, there aren't enough resources devoted to long-term research, we don't have enough invested in education and training, we aren't doing enough in law enforcement and active defense, and we continue to spend massive amounts trying to defend legacy systems that were never designed to be secure.

Given these repeated warnings, it is troubling that we have not seen any meaningful action by government to date. However, that is probably preferable to government action that makes things worse: consider DHS as one notable example (or several).

Compounding the problem, too many leaders in industry are unwilling to make necessary, radical changes either, because such actions might disrupt their businesses, even if such actions are in the public good. It is one of those "tragedy of the commons" situations. Market forces have been shown to be ineffective in fixing the problems, and will actually lead to attempts to influence government against addressing urgent needs. Holding companies liable for their bad designs and mistakes, or restricting spending on items with known vulnerabilities and weaknesses would be in the public interest, but too many vendors affected would rather lobby against change than to really address the underlying problems.

Those of us who have been observing this problem for so long are therefore hoping that the administration's 60 day review provides strong impetus for meaningful changes that are actually adopted by the government. Somewhat selfishly, it would be nice to know that my efforts in this direction have not been totally in vain. But even if nothing happens, there is a certain sense of purpose in continuing to play the role of Don Quixote.

Sancho! Where did I leave my horse?

Why is it that Demotivators® seem so appropriate when talking about cyber security or government? If you are unfamiliar with, let me encourage you to explore the site and view the wonderfully twisted items they have for sale. In the interest of full disclosure, I have no financial interest or ties to the company, other than as a satisfied and cynical customer.

On a more academic note, you can read or purchase the NRC reports cited above online via the National Academies Press website.

A Modest Proposal

Yesterday and today I was reading repeated news stories about the pending bailout—much of it intended to prop up companies with failed business models and incompetent management. Also distressing are the stories of extravagant bonuses for financial managers who are likely responsible for creating some of the same economic mess that is causing so much turmoil in world markets.

Running through my mind was also a re-reading of the recent statement by Norman Augustine before the U.S. House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee (it’s short and a great read—check it out). I definitely resonate with his comments about how we should invest in our technology and research to ensure that our country has a future.

And I was thinking about how can we reward a spirit of honest hard work rather than a sense of entitlement, and avoid putting money into industries where greed and incompetence have led to huge disasters, where those same miscreants are using the full weight of political pressure to try to get huge chunks of bailout money to continue their reign of error.

And all this came together when I saw a story about the lack of medical treatment and high rate of suicides for returning military after extended tours in the battlefield. And then I read this story and this story about the homeless—just two out of many recent stories.   

Why can’t we direct a little of our national wealth into a new GI Bill, similar to the original in 1944? Provide money so that our men and women who are returning from honorable service to the country can get the counseling and medical care they need. And then, ship them off to colleges for a degree. If they show real promise and/or have a degree already, then cover a graduate degree.   

These are people who volunteered years out of their lives to serve the interests of the rest of us. They were willing to put their lives on the line for us. And some died. And others have suffered severe physical and psychological trauma. They have shown they are able to focus, sacrifice, and work hard. My experience over the last two decades has shown me that most veterans and active-duty military personnel make good students for those reasons.

Service doesn’t provide intellectual ability, certainly, and not all can excel, but I am certain that many (if not most) can do well given the chance. And if regular college isn’t the right fit, then a vocational education program or appropriate apprenticeship should be covered.

Money should be allocated for additional counseling and tutoring for these students, too. They are likely to have a great range of physical and psychological needs than the usual student population, and we should address that. And money will need to be allocated to help provide the facilities to house and teach these students.

While we’re at it, maybe the same should be offered to those who have provided other service, such as in the AmeriCorps or Peace Corps? And perhaps those who take new jobs helping rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. I’m not a politician or economist, so I’m not sure what we should do for details, but the basic idea would be that someone who gives 4 years of service to the country should get 2-4 years of college tuition, fees, room and board.   

We might also want structure it so that degrees in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) disciplines have some form of extra preference or encouragement, although we should not discourage any valid course of study—except we should definitely not fund any degrees in finance!

Then maybe give a tax credit to any companies that hire these people after they graduate.

And make this good for anyone who served since, oh, 2001, and for anyone who signs up for one of the covered services before, say, 2015. If those dates don’t make sense, then pick others. But extend it forward to help encourage people to join some of the covered services—they could certainly use more people—and start far enough back.

Yes, I know there are currently educational benefits and health benefits for our veterans, but I am suggesting something more comprehensive for both, and for possibly a larger group. I’m suggesting that we invest in our future by making sure we do our utmost to patch up the injuries suffered in duty to our fellows, give them a shot at a better future. And that better shot is not to turn them out into our cities where there are no jobs, where the homeless live, where drugs and street crime may be rampant.

The whole process would give a huge boost of education to the workforce we want to have for the future. We don’t need more assembly line workers. We need engineers, technologists, scientists and more. Not only will we be educating them, but the endorsement we would be making about the importance of education, and the care for those who serve, will pay back indirectly for decades to come. It worked in the 40s and 50s, and led to huge innovations and a surge in the economy.

Will it all be expensive? Undoubtedly. But I’m guessing it is far less than what is in the budget bills for bank bailouts and propping up failed industrial concerns.

And when it is done, we will have something to show for our investment—far more than simply some rebuilt roads and a re-emergence of predatory lending.

But as I said, I’m not a politician, so what do I know?

Update: I have learned that there is a new GI bill, passed last year, which addresses some of the items I suggested above. Great! It doesn’t cover quite the breadth of what I suggested, and only covers the military. Somehow, I missed this when I did my web search….


Presidential Politics

If you are in the United States, it has been nigh-on impossible to watch TV, read a newspaper, follow a blog, or (in some states) get your paper mail without something about the upcoming election being present. Some of this has been educational, but a huge amount of it has been negative, vague, and often misleading. That’s U.S. politics, unfortunately—the majority of voters don’t really bother to educate themselves about the issues and the media does an uneven job of reporting the truth. For many voters, it comes down to only one or two issues they care passionately about, and they vote for a candidate (or against one) on those simple issues. For instance, there are many voters who will base their votes solely on a candidate’s perceived position on gun control, access to legal abortions, tax policy, or other single issues without thinking about all the position issues. (And, as I note below, most of these single issues aren’t really under the control of the President no matter who is elected.)

Of course, the US political system tends to reinforce this binary choice procedure, as we have long had only two really major parties. Parliamentary systems seem to encourage more parties, although even then there appears to be only two major ones, often oriented around the same approximate social/political poles: a conservative party, and a liberal (labor) party.

So, in the U.S. we have candidates from both major parties (and many minor ones) campaigning—explaining their positions, offering their plans for when they are in office, and trying to instill voter confidence and trust. (And too often, offering innuendo, misquotes and outright untruths about their opponents.)

What none of them say, and the media doesn’t either, is that very few of the promises can really be certain of being kept. And in large part, that is also a nature of government.

The President has a limited set of powers under the Constitution. He (or she) is responsible for the execution of the laws of the United States. The President is the Commander-in-Chief of all the armed forces and is responsible for commanding them in defense of the country and upholding the law (including treaties). The President is the chief executive agent of all the various Cabinet agencies, and of a number of offices and commissions. The President appoints a large number of officials (including judges and ambassadors), but doesn’t have the power to remove many of them.

Most importantly, the President does not make new laws. Laws are passed by Congress, usually with the assent of the President, although a 2/3 majority of both houses of Congress may pass laws to which the President objects. The President is then responsible for ensuring that those laws are carried out, with recourse to the Courts if there are questions. If the President fails to enforce the laws, Congress may take some punitive actions, or even impeach the President…if they have the political will.

So, back to the candidates. If you listen to their speeches, they offer to change tax law, spend more on energy issues, change health care, and a number of other important domestic issues. What they don’t point out, however, is that they will have no authority as President to do most of those things! Instead, Congress will need to pass authorizing legislation that is signed by the President. The President can certainly propose that Congress enact those changes, but Congress needs to craft and pass legislation that enables the President to act, and that allocate necessary funds, and that also create/remove administrative structures that may be involved. This legislation can include whatever other items that Congress adds in to the bill, including items that may be completely unrelated to the main topic. The President then must decide whether to sign the bill and act to implement its provisions.

So, the most a new President can do is to propose legislation to embody his/her campaign promises, and to work for its passage. What usually happens is that the size of the win in the election serves as a political measure of how much the population is aligned with the new President’s positions, and this can help get a particular agenda passed…or not. Of critical importance is also the issue of whether one or both houses of Congress are controlled by the same party as the new President, and by what margin.

Thus, there should probably be more attention paid to the candidates running for Congress and their particular positions on important issues. In many venues, however, the majority of the attention is focused on the Presidential contest. Some other states are also dealing with contentious state initiatives, tight governor races, and other local issues that help further obscure the Congressional races.

Now, how does this apply to cybersecurity, the ostensible topic of this blog? Or education? Or privacy? Or other topics we focus on here?

Well, as I will address in my next posting, the two main Presidential candidates have made some comments on cyber security, but I have not been able to find any coverage of any current candidate for Congress who has mentioned it. It is basically invisible. So is privacy. Education has gotten a little mention, but not much. And given the more overt, pressing issues of the economy, the deficit, health care, energy dependence, and war in the Middle East, it seems unlikely that any Congressional candidate has bothered to think much about these cyber issues, or that they have received much further thought from the Presidential candidates. (Too bad cyber security can’t be part of the mud slinging—it might raise its profile!)

Of course, with the economy in such sad shape, and some of the other severe problems being faced by the U.S., one might ask whether cyber should be a priority for the new President. I would answer yes, because the problems are already here and severe (although not as obvious as some of the other problems), and it will take years of major effort simply to keep even with the current sad status. The problems in cyber cannot be fixed in a crash effort devoted at any future time, and until they are addressed they will be a drain on the economy (in 2006, the FBI estimated the loss to computer crime in the US to be $67 billion—almost 10% of the recent economic bailout), and a threat to national security. Thus, deferring action on these issues will only make the situation worse; we need to initiate a sustained, significant program to make some important changes.

There are some things that the new President can do, especially as they relate to the military, law enforcement, and some other agencies in the Executive Branch. This is potentially cause for some glimmer of hope. I intend to blog some on that too, with a list of things that should be considered in the new administration.


Spaf giving testimony to US Congress today

Just a quick note that Eugene Spafford, Executive Director of CERIAS, will be giving testimony this morning at 10 a.m before the House Ways and Means Committee at a “Hearing on Employment Eligibility Verification Systems and the Potential Impacts on SSA’s Ability to Serve Retirees, People with Disabilities, and Workers.” You can view the broadcast live by visiting the hearing’s page and clicking on “Click Here to View Committee Proceedings Live.”