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White House Commission Debates Certification Requirements For Cybersecurity Pros

Commission on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency set to issue second round of recommendations

A commission set up to advise the Obama administration on cybersecurity policy is considering recommending certification and training for federal IT security employees and contractors.

The Commission on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency, which in December 2008 issued its Securing Cyberspace for the 44th Presidency report to Congress, is currently working on a sequel to that report, due sometime in late June or early July. The commission, made up of a who's who of experts and policy-makers, is debating strategies for building and developing a skilled cybersecurity workforce for the U.S., as well as issues surrounding an international cybersecurity strategy and online authentication.

But the prospect of mandated certification qualifications for IT security professionals has spurred debate among the commissioners as well as within the security community.

"I firmly believe in the need for certification, but I respect the realities in this field that's so nascent where so many folks become professionals [without certifications] should at least be grandfathered in," says Tom Kellermann, a member of the Commission and vice president of security awareness at Core Security Technologies.

Kellermann says the commission's proposed recommendations for certification center around federal employees and federal contractors, but regulated entities, such as critical infrastructure firms, also would likely fall within its scope.

But cybersecurity professionals don't all require or have the same skill sets for their jobs, he says. "Some professionals have unique, specialized skill sets that they may not be certified for right now," Kellermann says.

It's unclear whether the commission will base its recommendations on existing certifications, such as the CISSP or the various SANS certifications, in its final report, which will go to the White House, Congress, the new U.S. Cyber Command, and the Department of Homeland Security. According to one published report, the commission could advise the Obama administration to create a certification body that develops standards for testing the cyber skills of federal employees as well as contractors. The commission may recommend "continuous learning and demonstration of skill," commissioner Karen Evans, a former OMB administrator, reportedly said at a recent government summit.

Patricia Titus, chief information security officer (CSO) with Unisys and the former CSO of the Transportation Security Administration, says using existing certifications makes the most sense. "I'd like to see the government use existing certifications, like the CISSP," says Titus, adding that mandating certifications could be a bit limiting -- and expensive -- for the feds. "I don't know if the government has that kind of money lying around." Certification courses can cost thousands of dollars per person, for example.

Meanwhile, there's a major shortage of IT security pros out there, especially in the federal government. The DHS recently announced it would be hiring 1,000 new cybersecurity professionals. "It's important to have trained professionals in this space, but there's a shortage," Core's Kellermann says. With thousands of civilian and military jobs to fill, adding certification requirements to the mix could make it tougher to populate those positions, he says.

"That could be creating a monster. I would suggest that we need to increase our workforce, but not ostracize those that don't have certifications to get them or lose their jobs. They should be grandfathered in," Kellermann says.

And both private industry and the federal government should use the same IT security certifications, experts say. But the feds could take it one step further -- with cyber-ethics training and criteria, they say.

Some sort of ethics screening of federal cybersecurity pros could provide "another kind of bar" that could be used in the interview process, notes Lee Kushner, president of LJ Kushner and Associates, an IT security recruitment firm.

"More importantly, we need to educate [users about] how to protect ourselves but also some sort of cyber-ethics," Kellermann says. This could begin in school: "The same reason you don't beat up other kids [is why] you shouldn't hack other kids," he says.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is Senior Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, ... View Full Bio

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