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Policy Group Calls for Public-Private Cyber-Defense Program

The proposed National Cyber Response Network would link federal agencies, companies, and local governments, allowing collaboration during a cyberattack.

Creating plausible scenarios of cyberattacks launched by nations such as China or Iran, or by domestic terrorists and hacktivists, a policy group has concluded that too many roadblocks hinder the effective response to a major attack on US government agencies or private industry. 

In a report published last week, the New York Cyber Task Force (NYCTF) — a group of policy makers, private industry, and consultants — recommended that the United States create a National Cyber Response Network, linking together existing government and industry groups into collaborative network that could speed response to any attack. The task force, sponsored by Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), brings together government cyber experts, policymakers, and private industry professionals to address the national cybersecurity challenges that the United States will face in the future.

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The group concluded that the US is not prepared to effectively respond to a national cyber crisis, says Gregory Rattray, the executive director of the NYCTF and co-founder and partner at cyber consultancy Next Peak.

"We need to make ourselves more resilient," he says. "We know, in terms of policy, that we have to break down a lot of barriers for the private sector to work with the government, and both sides need to really invest in cyber in a serious way."

The report notes that interconnected devices and machine learning are becoming pervasive, with broadband Internet delivered from space, next-generation cellular networks, and artificial intelligence all being integrated into society's technological fabric. In a previous study published by the group, they focused on technologies and policies that could benefit cyber defenders. 

The latest report, published on Feb. 26, outlines the challenges that remain, created four scenarios of possible disruptive attacks, and outlined five recommendations, including the creation of the National Cyber Response Network (NCRN) managed by an agency that will be designated by the cabinet-level National Cyber Director. 

A number of recent attacks underscore the need for such an effort, from the massive supply chain compromise involving SolarWinds software to the relatively unsophisticated water-treatment plant hack, says Rattray.

"If we are going to withstand a cyberattack, we are going to have to invest an order of magnitude more in all the things that are necessary to be able to respond as a nation — both private sector and public — when an adversary unleashes what is clearly technically possible," he says. "If the Russians sent a disruptive command using the access that they had through the SolarWinds software, stuff would have crumbled all over the place."

The New York Cyber Task Force created four scenarios and created exercises to test the potential responses. The scenarios included Iran attacking local critical infrastructure to increase pressure on US policymakers, China hobbling technology industries, and domestic protestors using disruptive attacks. An important contribution of the NYCTF was testing some of the core recommendations of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, particularly those that focused on public-private collaboration. 

"The fact that the task force's rigorous process validated those recommendations only further reinforces the critical importance of improving how the US government works with the private sector on shared cyber threats," Erica Borghard, senior fellow with the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, said in a statement issued with the report. "It also demonstrates the urgency of nominating a National Cyber Director and empowering that position to be the focal point within the Federal government for collaboration with the private sector."

The United States also needs to take a more aggressive approach to undermining the capabilities of attackers before those capabilities are used in an attack, Rattray says. The ability of adversaries to attack the national and commercial infrastructures without resistance needs to change, he says. 

"The Solarium Commission, if you read their recommendations on the offensive side of things, they get it right," he says. "We need to use our ability to move outside of our own cyberspace to make it hard to attack us. We need to disrupt the setup and execution of an adversary's ability to put us at risk. That is different than proactively attacking others."

The report assumes a slow international escalation of tensions in cyberspace. For companies hoping that nations will develop some international treaty setting norms for cyberspace, it's time to face reality, Rattray says.

"If you are a defender, you have to assume that norms are not going to save you," he says. "That, if the US irritates an adversary, and you are a US company ... some adversaries might come after you as a way of forcing the hand of the United States."

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