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3/11/2016
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‘Must Haves’ & ‘Must Dos’ For The First Federal CISO

Offensive and defensive experience, public/private sector know-how, 'mini-NSA' mindset and vision are top traits we need in a chief information security officer.

So far this year, cybersecurity news is everywhere. And it includes some major announcements that are a welcome change from the dismal stories about huge data breaches that we read about far too often. President Obama requested a budget increase in cybersecurity spending. DHS revealed it will begin sharing threat intelligence with private companies. And, perhaps most significantly, the White House announced it would hire the first federal CISO. This is fantastic news!

So let’s look at what will be necessary for this significant new position to have the greatest chance of success (and not be yet another disappointment in the realm of federal information-security Initiatives).

Whoever the president chooses for this job is going to be a contentious pick. This person will be the first to serve in the role and will be highly visible during a time when major data breaches are an everyday occurrence. Breach fatigue has already largely set in (I already have four free credit monitoring services—how many do I need?). Expectations for the first federal CISO will be high. So what should the resume look like for anyone seeking the position? Here’s my thinking:

Hands-on offensive and defensive cyber-security experience: It’s hard to make well-informed decisions that impact millions of computer systems if you have never had to attack (as part of security testing) and defend systems yourself.

Intelligence community experience: Every cyber-defense team is like a mini-NSA for their organization—collecting information, processing it, “fusing” it together to make it actionable, etc.

Private and public sector experience: The federal government is a tough place to navigate if you have no experience dealing with it, so you’ll definitely need some of that. But private industry is always pushing the envelope, is innovating faster in cyber-defense tools and processes, and requires leaders who can handle dynamically changing environments.

Vision: The federal CISO will attempt to set policy and focus on huge gaps—both current and future—so he or she must be a visionary.

Let’s assume we find a great choice for federal CISO (and I expect we will). What should he or she focus on?  Two of the major themes from the federal initiative revolve around two of my most serious gripes with the state of information security: poor IT hygiene and an extreme shortage of qualified cyber defenders. If the new CISO did nothing but improve these two areas, we would have an order of magnitude improvement in the nation’s security. But we need more than that: The federal CISO needs to also focus on seven other key areas:

  1. Visibility: Keep cyber (and cyber successes) in the spotlight.
  2. IT hygiene: Identify outdated systems and reduce what must be defended. There are always systems that can be retired or that are exposed to the Internet but should not be.
  3. Fill our ranks: Identify common skill gaps across agencies and grow cyber leaders.
  4. Education: Implement a program to subsidize cybersecurity education for the general public and create career paths for them into federal roles (e.g., a Cyber GI Bill).
  5. Increase salaries: Attract the best and brightest to be cybersecurity experts in the public sector.
  6. Transparency: Require government agencies and departments to share what tools they’re using, what their incident response plans are, what attacks they are seeing, and their results from penetration tests, product evaluations, and more.
  7. Private industry partnerships: Create a private industry steering committee to reduce friction in the procurement process.

This is an exciting time to see the Obama administration pushing hard to improve our cyber defenses. The fact is, we are not winning the cyber war. Cybersecurity in the U.S. and the world is actually quite bleak. But by improving funding, hiring the right leadership, and putting the right amounts of transparency and agility at the top of the new CISO’s to-do list, we can turn the ship around.  

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Ben Johnson is CTO and co-founder of Obsidian Security. Prior to founding Obsidian, he co-founded Carbon Black and most recently served as the company's chief security strategist. As the company's original CTO, he led efforts to create the powerful capabilities that helped ... View Full Bio
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