President Donald Trump today signed an executive order on cybersecurity that squarely places on the shoulders of agency heads the security of their networks, systems, and data, as well as requires their adoption of the National Institute of Standards and Technology's cybersecurity risk framework of best security practices.
The EO, which has been in the works and revised a few times after fits and starts by the administration, for the most part echoes and builds on the policies of previous administrations, including FISMA and the Obama administration's critical infrastructure EO. The "Strengthening US Cyber Security and Critical Infrastructure" EO generally was well-received by cybersecurity experts in policy and technology, with a mix of views over whether it's a gamechanger and how it will roll out.
Among the key elements is a call for modernizing and consolidating government network technologies and infrastructures; a report on the technology supply chain risks to the US Department of Defense; support for security of critical infrastructure; an assessment of cyberattack and disruption of the nation's power grid; and a call for skilled cybersecurity talent.
"Effective immediately, each agency head shall use The Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity (the Framework) developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or any successor document, to manage the agency's cybersecurity risk. Each agency head shall provide a risk management report to the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) within 90 days of the date of this order," the EO says.
Christopher Pierson, CSO of Viewpost, says the EO addresses one of the key elements of cybersecurity: ownership. "Each agency head is now on alert that they own cyber as a part of their duties and must govern and appropriate time, budget, and people to tackle this. This is a critical first step as it place the onus on each agency head to make sure cyber is part of their mission," Pierson says. "The one throat to choke for accountability for federal cybersecurity is now clear."
Federal government networks and systems increasingly are being attacked and leaking sensitive data: the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) breaches in 2014 and 2015 that exposed sensitive information on 22 million Americans are a major case in point.
"Every agency has its own systems and does its best theoretically to protect them, and yet we already know federal systems are extraordinarily leaky and critical information is being hacked on a constant basis," says Mike Shultz, CEO of Cybernance, a cyber-risk governance firm. The EO calls for agencies to secure "the entire enterprise, not just harden this piece or that piece, and [specify] how they will manage the whole thing."
"This really represents a dramatic culture shift in the way the federal government is looking at cybersecurity," he says.
Obama administration cybersecurity coordinator Michael Daniel notes that the EO carries on the "general approach to cybersecurity" from both the Bush and Obama administrations, and doesn't necessarily represent any new policy directions. "It will be interesting to see whether the deterrence report and the international strategy will say anything new -- but in general, I don't see anything unusual or that really goes in a different policy direction. Of course, this order is more of a plan for a plan, because an EO can only direct federal agencies to do things they can already do within the law, but the reports it calls for are good ones to have, for the most part," Daniel says.
Just how federal agencies will meet those goals depends on their in-house expertise, of course. Like the private sector, the feds are struggling to find and hire cybersecurity talent amid a talent gap crisis. It's unclear as yet whether Trump's hiring freeze on federal agencies includes cybersecurity positions, and just how proposed budget cuts could affect their ability to protect their infrastructures, experts say.
Paul Vixie, CEO of Farsight Security, says the EO's section on workforce development is a good addition. "This is a very interesting thing for the executive branch to be focusing on," he says.
The EO calls for the Secretaries of Commerce, Homeland Security, Defense, Labor, Education, and OPM, to assess a report on the US education and training efforts in cybersecurity of the public and private "workforce of the future, including cybersecurity-related education curricula, training, and apprenticeship programs, from primary through higher education."
The cabinet members are tasked with providing their findings and recommendations on this within 120 days, according to the EO. "What recommendations come out of that, I'll be interested to see," Vixie says. "They seem to be saying we need to start teaching 0s and 1s earlier on."
The think-tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) expressed disappointment in the Trump administration EO. "We are disappointed to see that this executive order is mostly a plan for the government to make a plan, not the private sector-led, actionable agenda that the country actually needs to address its most pressing cyber threats," said Daniel Castro, vice president of ITIF, in a statement. "The last administration put together a commission which left a comprehensive set of action items for the new administration to pursue that should have been the starting point for this order. While the executive order checks most of the boxes thematically, it generally kicks the can down the road instead of taking any decisive actions."
Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio