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GAO Knocks Federal Cybersecurity Plan

The Government Accountability Office says the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative is poorly coordinated and unmeasured and recommends changes.

The federal government could do a better job defining and coordinating its recently partially declassified Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative, according to a report from the government's own auditors.

The new report, released by the Government Accountability Office last week, found that although the White House and federal agencies have made strides in planning and coordinating the 12-point program by creating interagency working groups like the Joint Interagency Cyber Task Force, the plan lacks definition in some places and doesn't cover the full scope of federal cybersecurity needs.

Among the key challenges for the CNCI: defining roles and responsibilities. For example, then-acting White House cybersecurity policy advisor Melissa Hathaway, in an interview with the GAO, noted an ad hoc, uncoordinated response to July 2009 distributed denial of service attacks targeting government Web sites.

In another example, while the Department of Homeland Security recently established the National Cyber Security Center, the report found that the center struggled to get to a fully operational level due to lack of coordination among agencies and the White House.

The GAO also sees challenges in establishing measures of effectiveness. In fact, the report says, metrics for the CNCI have yet to have been developed. "Although CNCI plans contain milestones for tracking implementation progress, they do not have corresponding benchmarks to gauge the extent to which CNCI activities are improving cybersecurity," the report says, noting that forthcoming Office of Management and Budget metrics could help provide a bit more clarity.

In a response to the report's author, federal CIO Vivek Kundra argued, while concurring with some of the report's recommendations, that the CNCI had adequately defined roles and responsibilities and claimed that agency responses to the July 2009 attacks were outside the scope of CNCI's definitions.

Other task items include establishing better transparency and reaching agreement on the scope of efforts to increase cybersecurity awareness and education. The report also finds that the CNCI doesn't do enough to coordinate cybersecurity efforts with international allies, nor does it properly address identity management and authentication.

The report attaches a November presentation given to staff of the House Armed Services committee's subcommittee on terrorism, unconventional threats, and capabilities that outlined the GAO's view of the CNCI.

That presentation adds a bit of clarity to some of the information on the CNCI that was declassified just last week. For example, it defines the lead agency or agencies for each of the 12 points of the CNCI plan, while the declassified summaries of the effort only define lead agencies for a few of those points.

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