Is the United States prepared to handle a societywide cyberattack spanning industries and government jurisdictions? "No, we are not," said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) in a talk at last week's DEF CON 2019.
Lieu was one of four participants on a DEF CON panel entitled "Hacking Congress: The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Friend." He, along with fellow congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI), Wilson Center president and former US representative (D-CA) Jane Harman, IBM X-Force Red Team director Cris Thomas, and Rapid7 director of public affairs Jen Ellis, discussed Congress' responsibility in cybersecurity.
"Politics is analog," said Harman in her opening remarks. "But the world, and the problems politicians confront, is digital." These problems will never be solved without bridging silos between security and government, she added, noting "no one solves problems in isolation."
Imagine if a massive destructive malware attack struck the US, shutting down hospitals and transportation systems. We have yet to see the type of "true doomsday" attack that would lead policymakers to the realization they need to do something about cybersecurity, said Ellis in an interview with Dark Reading. One goal of including representatives from Congress at DEF CON was to bring both teams together and introduce them to the experts and culture of cybersecurity.
There is an old perception that policymakers don't know anything about tech, Ellis explained, but lots of people are interested and trying to do the right thing. The problem is, they're dealing with an "unbelievably diverse" range of life-and-death issues. Cybersecurity is only one of them, but there is a growing interest in privacy and security as regulations like the California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA) and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), combined with 50-plus state-specific standards for breach notification.
Another challenge is the pace at which government moves and the structure of how its branches handle security. As Lieu pointed out, when a crisis hits, it's generally too late for Congress to do anything. Its job is to make laws and do oversight, "none of which is speedy or quick," he noted. Further, multiple areas of government – Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, the Office of Management and Budget – have a role in cybersecurity.
"If we could centralize a single point of contact, I think that would make things easier," Lieu said.
Representatives and security experts discussed current and future steps that could improve the government's security posture. Langevin emphasized the importance of practicing an incident response plan. "It needs to be exercised and drilled over and over again," he said. The US was "totally caught off guard" by Russian interference in the 2016 election, Langevin noted, and while security improved for the 2018 midterms, he believes the Russians will be back in 2020.
"The other thing we need to do, I believe, is engage more with the cybersecurity research community," he added. Hack the Pentagon is one example of how government is working with researchers, Lieu said, but more can be done. The Wilson Center, Hewlett Foundation, and I Am The Calvary are three organizations working to bring policymakers and security pros together. Another, the DC to DEF CON program, brings congressional staffers to the annual conference.
Of course, the security research and government communities work in entirely different ways, Ellis pointed out. Security experts want problems to be fixed immediately, while public policy is a slow-moving process. Congress works as an "evolution," while the tech sector is a binary world. "We can be a bit absolutist about things," she said, but changing policy "won't be one and done."
"The current congresspeople I see want to be sophisticated," Thomas said. They want to be knowledgeable and understand cybersecurity issues, but those issues are complex, he added. The security community should engage with them and educate them on what they should be worried about. All panelists encouraged the audience of researchers, many of whom expressed interest in working to improve security policy, to contact their representatives and share their concerns.