How Does the Government Buy Its Cybersecurity?

The federal government is emphasizing cybersecurity regulation, education, and defense strategies this year.

Josh Ladick, GSA Focus, Inc.

June 15, 2021

5 Min Read

People understand the importance of cybersecurity nowadays, but most don't understand how the United States government locates and chooses the companies that will protect its infrastructure.

In 2020, ransomware attacks increased and affected every industry. Although healthcare and educational institutions were the sectors targeted most often, cybercriminals still target and exploit vulnerable organizations in other sectors. The trend has kept pace this year, and analysts predict it will worsen over time.

However, due to the massive boost in ransomware attacks and the recent SolarWinds attack, law enforcement agencies, government officials, and policymakers have focused their attention on two areas:

  1. Emphasizing cybersecurity regulation, education, and defense strategies this year.

  2. Placing greater emphasis on cybersecurity spending.

And as a result, many cybersecurity firms are swarming to the government sector.

The Prevalence of Cyberattacks in the US
In 2020, the United States got hit by 120 significant cyberattacks. In the first three months of 2021, the country was hit by 30 significant cyberattacks. The majority of the parties involved are federal agencies, defense companies, and high-tech corporations. The average cost of a cyberattack is $1.1 million, with downtime being another painful cost of being hacked.

Unfortunately, the world is now in a new form of war in which the enemy has infiltrated many nations, and there is little understanding of how closely the enemy collaborates.

How the US Government Responds
The US government is just now identifying the ongoing struggle with strong authoritarian adversaries (China, Russia, etc.). Once it understands the nuances of the attackers' goal of causing harm to the United States, mounting a proactive defense is possible.

The US government implemented a defensive action plan this year in response to the growing number of cyber threats. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2021 got signed into law on Jan. 1, 2021. The bill contains 77 cybersecurity regulations in addition to $740 billion in military funding.

Moreover, several provisions aim to enhance both offensive and defensive cybersecurity capabilities by strengthening the nation's cybersecurity system. A defensive plan would not be enough to overcome well-funded, robust, highly skilled, and hostile adversaries.

A more assertive approach (with coercive elements) is a moral dilemma for the US government, which is erring on the side of caution. There is still a possibility of ultimately bringing adversaries like China or Russia into the discussion if one follows an assertive approach that could involve intimidation.

Fighting Cyber Wars With an Army of Cyber Contractors
Cyber services help when combatting cyberwars. There are many cyber contractors that can help keep businesses and entities safe by focusing on security.

The government knows this and likes the anonymity of using these companies. Therefore, it will hire them on occasion to surveil sensitive projects.

Category Management: Best in Class for Cyber Services
The General Services Administration (GSA) offers a wide range of cybersecurity products and services that help customers enhance their resilience and safeguard sensitive data.

Overall Spending Statistics
In 2020, the government expected to spend $1.1 billion on cybersecurity contracts. For example, the Department of Defense spent $551 million in 2020, and the other federal agencies spent a total of $502 million. So, yes, the US government spent more than anticipated.

GSA Multiple Award Schedule: HACS SIN 54151HACS
The Highly Adaptive Cybersecurity Services (HACS) Special Item Number (SIN) is created for the Multiple Award Schedule (MAS) Information Technology Schedules. It provides seamless access to IT processes, solutions, and facilities for federal agencies. As a result, public sector organizations must address the possible points of weakness before they affect the system.

The SIN 54151HAC provides a variety of cybersecurity services in a variety of disciplines. This variety includes information assurance, secure Web hosting and backup, virus detection, tactical awareness, disaster recovery, system monitoring, authentication services, and security operations center (SOC) services.

The GSA contractors total 359 in the HACS SIN category. A total of 18.9% are large businesses, and 81.1% are small businesses. Moreover, 86.4% are in the Washington Beltway region. Below are the GSA total cyber-related sales by year:

  • Fiscal year 2020: $39,445,937

  • Fiscal year 2021: $24,438,092

GSA Cyber-Contractor Selection Process
The GSA HACS SIN is loaded with an army of contractors, but how were they deemed qualified and trustworthy to enter this category? Here is the process:

  1. Contractor decides which subcategories to add.

    • High-value asset (HVA) assessments

    • Risk and vulnerability assessment

    • Penetration testing

    • Incident response

    • Cyber hunt

  2. Contractor must participate in an oral technical evaluation that will be conducted by a Technical Evaluation Board (TEB). The contractor must identify up to five key personnel, by name and association with the offeror, who will field questions during the oral technical evaluation. The contractor will be evaluated on its knowledge of the proposed services. The oral technical evaluation will require the offeror to respond to a specific scenario and general questions to assess the offeror's expertise.

  3. The Cyber Panel then decides if the contractor is acceptable or unacceptable.

  4. If "acceptable," then the contractor may submit a modification to the GSA contract to add labor categories under the Cyber SIN 54151HACS.

More details on the process can be found here.

As the US government embraces modernization, its security becomes vulnerable to cyberattacks. This has been evident in the recent years. Where IT infrastructure has increased, cyberattacks have increased at just about the same pace.

Through cybersecurity measures, coping with the changes is made easier. The government is taking an offensive approach through diplomacy, and a defensive approach by way of cybersecurity contractors. And as a result, the acquisition processes have quickly adapted, like the GSA Schedule program and Department of Defense initiatives.

About the Author(s)

Josh Ladick

GSA Focus, Inc.

Josh Ladick is the President of GSA Focus, Inc., and has been immersed in GSA Contracts and Government Contracting for over 13 years. I explain the complex GSA and FAR clauses in simple terms that anyone can understand, as well as keep government contractors informed on a broad group of GSA Contract related topics. More about Josh Ladick.

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