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SolarWinds Attack, Cyber Supply Chain Among Priorities for Biden Administration

During Senate confirmation hearings, the nominees for Secretary of Homeland Security and Director of National Intelligence pledged to focus on cybersecurity.

With his inauguration, President Joseph Biden inherits a number of significant national crises, from an ongoing pandemic, to a bifurcated economy, to the fallout from a massive nation-state espionage attack against US companies and government agencies.

While the administration will initially focus on the pandemic and the economy, cybersecurity will also be a top priority for the US government, said two nominees for top security posts — Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security and Director of National Intelligence — during their Senate confirmation hearings on Jan. 19. Cybersecurity is integral, underpinning the US economy and ability to govern, said Avril Haines, the administration's nominee for director of national intelligence, during her confirmation hearing.

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"One of the great challenges we face — in the United States, in particular — is the relative asymmetry of the threat in cyber," she said in response to senators' questions. "It is relatively easy for adversaries to hold at risk what are high-value assets to the United States given how much we rely on cyber and digital work for our economy, for our security [and] for so many different issues."

In the wake of the SolarWinds supply chain attack that has led to thousands of compromises at companies and government agencies, cybersecurity officials will have to scramble to get up to speed. While the issue is not listed on the Biden administration's page of policy priorities, the incoming administration has already made several appointments that indicate its direction. In addition to the two cabinet-level posts, former National Security Agency cyber expert Rob Joyce will become deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technology for the National Security Council (NSC), replacing Anne Neuberger, who will become the deputy national security adviser, where she will take charge of cybersecurity for the entire US federal government.

President Biden's nomination for Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Alejandro Mayorkas, recognized the importance of cybersecurity during his Senate confirmation hearings yesterday. 

"I can assure you that the cybersecurity of our nation will be one of my highest priorities because I concur with you that the threat is real, and the threat is everyday, and we have to do a much better job than we are doing now," he said in response to a senator's question.

The United States is arguably the dominant target of cybercriminals, economic espionage, and nation-state cyber operations and intelligence gathering, making the protection of data and systems critically important.

In 2018, the Trump administration rolled out its national cybersecurity strategy, emphasizing — as did previous administrations — a public-private partnership between the government and private sector. Most significantly, the plan called for information sharing on a continuous basis, expanding the scope of the information sharing and analysis centers (ISACs) established during the Clinton administration, and a more aggressive approach to defense, known as "Defend Forward."

However, in other ways, such as the downgrading of the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues in the State Department, dismissing evidence of Russian hacking, and de-emphasizing the international alliances that could have helped pressure cyber actors to refrain from attacks, the Trump administration lost ground.

In his response to other senators, Mayorkas pledged to focus on the supply chain of national intelligence and conduct a review of the two programs — the Einstein system and the Continuous Detection and Monitoring (CDM) system — for detecting intrusions into government systems. 

The goal will be to determine whether the systems "are appropriately designed and appropriately and effectively executed to stop a threat like SolarWinds, and if not, what other defenses do we need to develop in the federal government to protect our very valuable equities and resources?" he said.

If proposed stimulus legislation passes, the national cybersecurity efforts will benefit as well. More than $10 billion is earmarked in the bill for new cybersecurity technology and services for the DHS's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), for hiring more cybersecurity experts, and for improving incident response.

Overall, the administration plans to increase the resilience of US agencies and organizations to cyberattack and expand the approach to incurring more costs on attackers, according to Haines.

"President-elect Biden has indicated that there should be imposition of cost, for example, with respect to SolarWinds, and when you have an imposition of cost, you can deter ... actors from engaging further in that activity if the cost is sufficient that it actually has an impact on them and their decision-making," Haines told senators during the confirmation hearing. 

She added that another one of the Biden administration's policy priorities — repairing relationships with global allies — will also help deter future attacks.

"I think that working with allies and parters, in order to impose cost, can actually raise the cost, essentially, and therefore help promote deterrence and, again, push back," she said.

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