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Gartner: Feds Must Play Stronger Cybersecurity Role

Cybersecurity strategy should focus on using public policy and the government's buying power to accelerate progress in eliminating vulnerabilities that enable attacks versus simply driving increased reporting of attacks, report says
Stamford, Conn., May 21, 2009 — U.S. national cybersecurity policy needs to take a more operational approach toward stimulating higher levels of security in cyberspace, rather than focusing on strategies to drive higher spending or higher visibility for security, according to Gartner, Inc.

Although there is a definite role for government to play in accelerating progress toward higher levels of cybersecurity, it will be more akin to trying to deal with global warming than dealing with telephone, banking, or automotive industry policies.

"The evolution and technological underpinnings of the Internet are very different from those of telecommunications or any other previous infrastructure," said John Pescatore, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. "Different approaches are required to ensure reliable and secure services in cyberspace than on old telecom networks, and the development of public policy has to proceed very differently, as well. Government policy that attempts to force top-down solutions onto an inherently peer-to-peer problem will always fail, as has been demonstrated by U.S. government cybersecurity initiatives during the last 15 years."

Mr. Pescatore said a national cybersecurity strategy should not be aimed at having the government seek to control the level of security on the Internet or issue legislations to mandate solutions. Rather, cybersecurity strategy should focus primarily on using public policy and the government's buying power to accelerate progress in eliminating vulnerabilities that enable attacks versus simply driving increased reporting of attacks. A successful national cyberscurity strategy will look more like a hurricane preparedness strategy that mandates redesigning structures or building higher levees versus the deployment of more water gauges.

Gartner analysts said that several key elements should be the focus of U.S. government strategy for cybersecurity:

  • Stop studying, and start acting -- There have been plenty of existing efforts to define and measure the shortcomings of cybersecurity, so there is no need to reinvent the wheel.
  • Harmonize federal security standards with commercial equivalents -- Although there will always be a need for higher levels of security than commercial standards allow, harmonizing the base level will eliminate duplication and waste and enable the government to drive suppliers to higher levels of security more easily. Similar harmonization at the federal level of data privacy and disclosure rules is needed, as well.
  • Use purchasing power to drive security to be built-in -- Because the key to increasing cybersecurity lies in reducing vulnerabilities, all government software procurements should require application vulnerability testing as part of the acceptance criteria.
  • Evaluate existing regulations, and rejuvenate enforcement -- There are areas where federal legislation is needed to harmonize conflicting state laws, but the biggest bang for the federal buck will be in the actual enforcement of existing rules and regulations.
  • Keep offense and defense separate -- The primary goal of a cybersecurity strategy must be to make attacks ineffective through prevention rather than detect successful attacks by enabling surveillance. Combining the two functions will inevitably result in lower levels of security and possibly increased privacy violations.
  • Reward best practices -- Most of the publicity tends to go toward the government agencies with low Federal Information Security Management Act scores in annual audits, and currently there seems to be little or no effort to spread best practices across agencies.
  • Establish a federal chief information security office, not a federal cybersecurity czar -- The bottom line is that increasing the national cybersecurity is an operations issue. The problems are well-understood, solutions are known, and gaps have been identified. Organizations with high security in private industry and government almost invariably have a strong security office and a chief information security officer (CISO), and that should be the model that the U.S. government follows.

    "There is little doubt that the federal government has a major role to play in stimulating progress toward higher levels of cybersecurity," said Mr. Pescatore. "Proactive harmonization of security standards driven by the federal government will be much more effective than leaving states to define their own, widely varying levels of approaches for increasing the protection of citizen data and critical infrastructures."

    Additional information is available in the Gartner report "Toward a National Cybersecurity Strategy." The report is available on Gartner's Web site at

    Mr. Pescatore will discuss the key issues facing the security industry during the Gartner Information Security Summit, taking place from June 28 through July 1 in Washington, D.C. The Summit hits the critical spot between strategic planning and tactical advice. Gartner analysts, industry experts and IT security practitioners will deliver unbiased, realistic analysis of the current state of information security, as well as an independent vision of how things will evolve over the long term. For complete event details, please visit the Gartner IT Security Summit Web site at Members of the media can register by contacting Christy Pettey at [email protected]

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