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Bolstering Our Nation's Defenses Against Cybersecurity Attacks

Shawn Henry, former Executive Assistant Director of the FBI and current CrowdStrike president of services and CSO, shares the top three cybersecurity priorities that the Biden administration needs to address.

For the cybersecurity community at large, 2020 was one of the most active years in recent memory. The COVID-19 pandemic provided the perfect nesting ground for social engineering attacks from e-crime actors and targeted intrusions from nation-state adversaries. In fact, the number of intrusions that CrowdStrike detected in the first half of 2020 quickly surpassed the number of intrusions observed throughout all of 2019. In both the private and public sectors, attack surfaces grew exponentially as entire organizations and agencies moved to remote work. Often, government agencies were in the crosshairs of state-sponsored adversaries, who were incentivized to infiltrate networks to steal valuable data on vaccine research and government response plans to the pandemic.

Unfortunately, we cannot turn back the clock, and adversaries are continuing to advance their tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), becoming increasingly brazen and stealthy. In the wake of recent events, one thing is abundantly clear — defending against breaches in the evolving threat landscape is of the utmost importance to national security. The Biden administration must make cybersecurity a clear-cut priority. Strategy should include further deterring nation-state adversaries, establishing a national cybersecurity lead quickly, and opening communication between private and public sectors to successfully secure our nation's critical assets.

1. Deter Nation-State Intrusions
The first step to averting nation-state threats against the United States is recognizing their true intent and motivation. According to CrowdStrike's "2021 Global Threat Report," threat actors from China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Vietnam pursued objectives this year that were related to strategic national security and espionage priorities dictated by their respective states. For example, in the past year, nation-state adversaries performed devastating attacks on supply chains, COVID-19 research facilities, and more without any immediate repercussions. Attribution of adversaries, when done correctly, can be a powerful deterrence tool. Similar to how the FBI profiles a criminal, we must understand the various adversary groups and their practices, tradecraft, and TTPs to get a clear picture of how to stop them.

Recently, the Biden administration has taken action against some of the more active threat actors through the indictments of three North Korean government officials. A more proactive approach must be taken to defend our government and global critical infrastructure against malicious activity. This proactive approach starts with clearly and publicly defining boundaries through cybersecurity policy, regulations, and sanctions that provide immediate consequences for campaigns waged against the United States. Without deterrents like these, threat actors will become increasingly active, with attempts to breach the election system, disseminate misinformation, and target our nation's critical infrastructure.

2. Establish a Cyber Executive
To lay the foundation for an effective national cybersecurity strategy, the Biden administration has taken the important first step of appointing a deputy national security adviser in charge of cyber and emerging technology. Anne Neuberger will be responsible for upholding a standard of federal security practices and priorities that will properly safeguard our government from malicious threat actors. While this appointment is necessary, it's just the first step, as the administration must establish a dedicated cybersecurity executive.

This cabinet-level position should have responsibility and authorization to coordinate this issue across all federal government agencies. The cybersecurity executive would oversee policy, budget, and the implementation and execution of a comprehensive national cybersecurity strategy to protect and defend the US public and private sectors. It will be vital for the cybersecurity executive to coordinate with the national security adviser, with a direct line to the president to keep cybersecurity highlighted as a significant national security priority.

The cybersecurity executive must be an advocate for the cutting-edge technology required to detect and prevent sophisticated adversary capabilities, moving quickly from outdated legacy technology and towards technology that provides near-real-time visibility and speed to remediation. The cybersecurity executive must also embrace modern approaches to cybersecurity, exploring threat hunting, zero trust, and extended detection and response (XDR) models to help government agencies stay one step ahead of evolving threats. These strategies and others must be coordinated across government agencies, with policies and processes consistently applied strategically and efficiently.

3. Increase Collaboration Between Private and Public Sectors
Along the lines of increased coordination across government agencies, there needs to be more actionable intelligence sharing between the public and private sectors. During the recent supply chain attacks, threat actors exploited limitations in outdated authentication architecture to gain access to both private and public sector organizations downstream. Visibility into activity in those processes was greatly limited, which allowed the threat actors to move undetected for an extended period of time.

Private-sector cybersecurity companies are responsible for driving cybersecurity innovation through cloud adoption, zero-trust models, and other means, and they have the in-depth intelligence and experience from the front lines that provides invaluable insights for organizations to protect themselves. Absent effective lines of communication between the two sectors, critical intelligence to both defend networks and identify and disrupt our adversaries will be lost. One cannot properly take a risk-informed approach to defense, one that goes beyond technology to a more holistic strategy including people, process, and technology without actionable intelligence. The adversaries, too, operate in perpetuity, unhindered, without a deterrence strategy that requires actionable intelligence for attribution.

Cyberattacks from nation-state adversaries and cybercriminals have become a prominent threat to our nation's security and infrastructure. As the cybersecurity landscape evolves, threat actors will continue to find new, advanced ways of breaching government networks to claim their victory. Bolstering our national security strategy with priorities such as these will allow us to take more proactive and immediate actions against our foes.

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