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6/15/2017
10:30 AM
Carson Sweet
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Trump’s Executive Order: What It Means for US Cybersecurity

The provisions are all well and good, but it's hardly the first time they've been ordered by the White House.

The WannaCry ransomware attack has dominated headlines recently, and with good reason - it has infected hundreds of thousands of computers in close to 100 countries, shutting down hospitals in the UK, causing problems for companies as large as FedEx, and has so far earned the attackers at least $70,000 in ransom money.

It’s no surprise, then, that President Donald Trump’s Executive Order that seeks to improve cybersecurity across the federal government has flown under the radar since it was signed on May 11. The EO includes provisions for securing critical infrastructure, protecting against botnets and distributed attacks, and encouraging the development of more cybersecurity experts in the government’s workforce.

These provisions are all well and good, but this is hardly the first time they’ve been ordered by the White House. President Barack Obama issued a similar order in 2016, and another one in 2013. Even the Bush administration was concerned about cybersecurity.

High-level orders just like this one come out with every administration, and they all essentially say the same thing: Thou Shalt Assess and Protect. The problem is that the follow-through usually doesn’t deliver the resources agencies need to get it done. Many of the security and compliance requirements, while necessary, are so onerous to implement that they obviate much of the value that agencies seek from cloud models. The question then becomes how well the administration can identify and eliminate the obstructions agencies face as they consider adopting cloud and shared services.

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In particular, the explicit botnet research component of the order stands out as very odd. It feels almost like it was authored by someone who only very recently learned what a botnet is, was shocked to learn they existed, and now believes they’re the root of many problems. It’s entirely unclear why botnets are highlighted instead of APTs, malware, etc. Ransomware is particularly notable in its absence considering the timing of WannaCry. But in any case, a government directive at this level should be more broadly focused than to call out one individual threat vector in a sea of thousands.

The EO gives both the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) 60 days to assess how well the current state of federal cybersecurity lives up to all these provisions AND to create a full plan to tackle any and all weaknesses.

The first part of this, simply putting the audit reports together, shouldn’t be too difficult since agencies are likely to have most of this info on hand and will just need to assemble it. The bigger question is how OMB will manage to get through reports for every department of the federal government in only 60 days. Even if the reports are available tomorrow, (and they won’t be), that timeframe is … ambitious. It really doesn’t seem to be informed by a solid understanding of practicalities.

If this Executive Order was part of a truly well-coordinated effort, it would call for the hiring of a Federal CISO to work with all departments to ensure security is consistently implemented across the entire government. This person would be accountable for actually understanding the practicalities and dealing with them, which is key since accountability is trumpeted throughout the order.

Most agencies already have their own CISOs and significant security organizations in place. They not only work to keep their departments secure, but also act as a convenient place for department heads to point fingers when things go awry. The EO emphasizes that this isn’t acceptable and that department heads will have to take full responsibility for their security failures, just as a corporate CEO is held accountable if their own CISO fails to live up to his or her job.

Like so much else in this order, though, this is nothing new. Agency heads have been accountable for some time, so if anything this is really just a loud reiteration of accountability. FISMA (and related standards tied to it) are one example of where accountability has already been established. Without a Federal CISO to oversee everything, it’s hard to see how repeating that people will be held accountable will actually make them accountable.

Only time will tell if this new order will be any more successful than its near identical predecessors at improving government security and keeping future WannaCry level exploits from making their way into the wild.

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Carson Sweet is co-founder and chief technology officer for CloudPassage. As founding CEO, Carson led the team that created Halo, the patented security platform that changes the way enterprises achieve infrastructure protection and compliance. Carson's information security ... View Full Bio
 

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