​Homeland Security shares initiatives for securing government services from emerging cyber threats

Gregory J. Touhill is a retired Brigadier General from the US Air Force and is currently the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Cybersecurity and Communications for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

He spoke at the recent Technology in Government conference held in Canberra, via video-link.

“The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a very involved cybersecurity mission,” he says. “We do three things in the cybersecurity realm. First of all, we work across our federal government with 125 different departments and agencies to better prepare to defend their network. We also work with state, local and territorial governments. We have over 300,000 different government entities across our 54 states and territories that include counties and municipalities. Finally, our role in cyber is not complete without working with the communications sector to make sure that the pipes, the different mechanisms for ensuring ones and zeroes up operating for our public”.

Touhill says DHS shares information with over 200 CERTs around the world.

One of the focus areas for DHS is raising the bar for all partners and agencies across the government according to Touhill. This includes the ability to detect, react and prevent cyber events.

“Cybersecurity is not a technology issue as much as it’s a risk management issue,” he says.

That involves identifying best practices, sharing threat information and preparing for the “very bad days”.

The analysis conducted by DHS has identified 16 critical pieces of infrastructure. 95% of those are held in the private sector.

“The way we’ve organised ourselves in supporting our critical infrastructure is to try setting up organisations based along the critical sectors themselves. There’s an organisation structure used called the Information Sharing and Analysis Centres, or ISACs. Each one is aligned with a critical infrastructure sector and run by private sector entities”.

Touhill called these a kind of cyber “neighbourhood watch” with lots of information sharing including machine-to-machine exchange of data such as IP addresses, hashes and numeric information.

This approach has been deemed successful both within the government and the private sector and is supported from the White House. And there’s a strong relationship with educational bodies to ensure cyber education is front and centre on academic curricula.

The recent announcement of Presidential Policy Directive 41, which defines cyber incident co-ordination procedures. DHS has a leadership role in the asset response protocols from this directive which will be executed through the National Cybersecurity Communications Integration Centre.

“In essence, asset response is getting the asset back up and operating. We like to equate to being a firefighter. We go in if it’s a matter of arson and put out the fire, conserve the evidence and turn over the investigation to the threat responders”.

Threat response, in the USA, is led by the FBI.

An important element of that response is declassifying information as quickly as possible and making it available to the private sector so they are in a position to pre-emptively act to the changing threat environment.

“Rapid declassification of information is critically important so that people have the proper amount of time to prepare and to posture themselves to better manage the risk. Our target is that within 24 hours of receipt, we want to declassify as much as possible”.

One of the barriers to information sharing, says Touhill, comes when victims are identified. The focus, he says, is on sharing everything he can about the assailant and the attack. When the victims are identified, “that’s when information sharing dries up,” says Touhill.

With more and more systems moving out to public cloud service providers, Touhill says it’s important to set out requirements clearly when it comes to cybersecurity and ensuring you can validate those requirements by testing and audits, and building cyber provisions into contracts.

“The best contracts and the best migrations to the cloud are done with cyber-provisions baked into the contract”.

He also noted that cyber-risk management needs to move from the server room into the board room – something we’ve been hearing for the last few years.

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