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Government Auditors Urge Clearer Cybersecurity R&D Strategy

The government needs better leadership and more cohesive direction on cybersecurity R&D, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The federal government needs to do more to come up with a comprehensive strategy for funding and carrying out research and development of new cybersecurity technologies, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office.

Cybersecurity R&D is currently a multi-headed set of initiatives within government. The report lists, in addition to the breadth of executive agencies, 14 different organizations involved in oversight and coordination of cybersecurity R&D, with various hands in a dizzying array of pots, and five agencies actually funding and conducting most of the government's cybersecurity R&D.

For example, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee both advise the President on technology policy, the Office of the Cybersecurity Coordinator works closely with other top IT officials as well as the National Economic Council and National Security Council on cybersecurity policy, OSTP advises the President on budget formation, and a Cyber Security and Information Assurance Interagency working Group facilitates interagency program planning around cybersecurity.

Any number of government organizations have issued guidance on cybersecurity research and development, including the two Presidential advisory committees, the White House itself, and the Department of Homeland Security.

The report notes that officials within the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy's Subcommittee on Networking and Information Technology (NITRD) are endowed with a leadership role in terms of coordinating cybersecurity R&D efforts, they haven't taken advantage of that role. Despite GAO recommendations and responsibilities laid out in legislation, NITRD has never prioritized a national or federal R&D agenda.

The report recommends that the White House follow the Bush administration's National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace, which urged the creation of near-term, mid-term and long-term goals for cybersecurity R&D. The report notes that OSTP is only in the beginning stages of creating such an agenda and updating its 5-year plan for cybersecurity R&D.

For example, NITRD held a conference last year to discuss cybersecurity R&D funding, but that event did not lead to clear next steps that NITRD plans to take. Not until recently, in May, did NITRD disclose plans to develop a cybersecurity R&D agenda that focuses on three priorities for cybersecurity R&D, and GAO cautioned that that plan doesn't address all the priorities that should be in such an agenda.

"For example, among other things, issues such as global-scale identity management and computer forensics are not included in this framework," the report says. "Until NITRD exercises its leadership responsibilities, federal agencies will lack overall direction for cybersecurity R&D."

In terms of funding, the National Science Foundation's Trustworthy Computing Program, Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate, and several programs at the Department of Defense, Department of Energy and National Institute for Standards and Technology are the biggest spenders on cybersecurity R&D.

However, the report scolds the government for not yet following through with an eight-year-old Congressional requirement under the E-Government Act of 2002 to create a database that tracks R&D funding and for thus obscuring how much is really spent on cybersecurity R&D.

The report also notes that there's no formal, ongoing process in place for sharing key information on R&D initiatives between the private sector and the public sector, which means that companies won't know where the government's focus is and will likely invest in their own interest rather than in the national interest. In addition, gaps in research are therefore more difficult to identify.

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