A letter to President Obama

Too long has the United States government struggled with the safe deployment of new technologies

Dear President Obama:

By the time you read this you will be the president-elect of the United States of America. I am writing to alert you to the serious action that is required to secure the information systems of the country that you will soon lead. To say that the US government computing infrastructure, in all of its various branches, departments, and offices, is vulnerable is an understatement. While the GAO and OMB have been doing what they can to push security they are facing staunch resistance to change.

Anyone in the private sector who has tried to implement change in security practices has encountered the resistance that is now in evidence within your government. Only through executive dictate can real change happen.

Here are my ten suggestions for immediate action to secure the United States against the threat of espionage, random attacks, terrorist attacks against cyber infrastructure, and all-out cyber warfare.

1. Immediately issue a Presidential order that establishes responsibility for cyber security with real negative repercussions for those who fail to prevent breaches. For civilians this means being fired; for the military this means court marshal, demotion, and expulsion for serious security breaches. Do not allow the blame to be foisted off on contractors. The only way that security gets implemented is if someone's job is on the line. This goes all the way to the top, of course. Whoever you appoint to replace the current Assistant Secretary for Cyber Security and Communications must understand that security breaches imply failure and those responsible will be replaced.

2. While National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has been responsible for security standards and has created some great documents it is a stretch to try to make the entire government comply with them during your term as President. Those responsible for locking down government networks and defending data will need to be empowered with a set of strict rules. These rules should include:

I. All access must be explicitly authorized.

II. All users must be identified and strongly authenticated.

III. All applications must be reviewed for security vulnerabilities.

IV. All network attached systems must be scanned for vulnerabilities on a schedule.

V. All network connections must be firewalled.

VI. All firewalls must be configured to "deny all except that which is explicitly allowed".

VII. All government networks must be mapped and understood.

VIII. All data needs to be encrypted at rest

IX. All communication links need to be encrypted

X. All intrusions need to be aggressively analyzed and appropriate responses executed.

3. Empower OMB to withhold funding to any agency that does not comply in a timely (less than 6 months) manner with 1. and 2.

4. Decentralize security management. One person cannot be effective in overseeing a cyber security policy. Security is everyone's responsibility and the system should motivate responsible individuals to take action.

5. Fix the DHS information sharing capability by learning from the recent advance of social networking that helped fund your campaign. Getting members of law enforcement to collaborate effectively is not a task that can be accomplished by rolling out a quick fix technology. In a secure environment individuals could find the most effective way s to communicate and share critical information.

6. Do not confuse security awareness campaigns with actual security improvements. The time, effort, and money that is spent on publicity campaigns could be better allocated to securing government networks.

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Richard Stiennon

Network World
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