Cybersecurity

Mark Weatherford's major league cyber team

James Kegley

A decade ago, when Rick Dakinmet parents at his son’s grade school who said they worked for the “government”—and declined to expand—it meant they were agents. Dakin, a security consultant, is a member of the Denver chapter of the FBI’s InfraGard program, a public-private partnership that convenes businesses, the FBI, other law enforcement agencies and community organizations to exchange tips about national security threats. But sharing doesn’t come easily in these circles. 

When Mark Weatherford, then Colorado’s chief information security officer, became head of the InfraGard chapter in 2007, his collegial personality lured those agents out of their shells to the point where they readily identified themselves at meetings and began to exchange information.

Today as the first civilian cyber- security chief, Weatherford is facilitating information-sharing at the highest levels of government—alongside the White House cyber czar Michael Daniel, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency. “Gen. Alexander and Mark Weatherford see themselves as peers,” says Dakin, noting the military, law enforcement agencies and DHS haven’t always been on the same page.

“The FBI used to say, ‘Oh, you can’t talk to that guy, he’s going to talk to the newspapers and it will come back to us.’ ” As the Homeland Security Department’s deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity, Weatherford works closely with the bureau as it confronts cybercrime, which Mueller says will replace terrorism as the “No. 1 threat to the country.”  

Weatherford’s roots in federal cybersecurity, particularly military information protection, go back to the late 1980s, when he began a decade-long stint as a Navy cryptologic officer. By 2000, he was chief information security operations officer at the
service’s Fleet Information Warfare Center. “Awesome intellect, but you don’t pick up on the intellect at first. You say, this is a nice guy,” Dakin says.

Convincing banks and airlines, however, to disclose breaches could take more than Weatherford’s brains and easygoing nature. The private sector owns an estimated 85 percent of the nation’s critical infrastructure. By law, the federal government is not authorized to tell those financial firms, hospitals, telecoms and other vital institutions how to secure their computers./p>

“Building that trust not only within the government, but with the private sector, is really key to success in this business,” Weatherford says. “Informal relationships are sometimes more important than those formal relationships.”

It’s not necessarily that companies don’t want to disclose hacking. They are concerned about being held liable for breaches or hurting their brands—not to mention rules prohibiting disclosure of customer information. “Obviously, we want that intelligence available immediately for sharing—but there cannot be attribution or retribution for sharing that information, because it is going to hurt all of us,” says Dakin, chief executive officer and co-founder of cyber compliance consultancy Coalfire Systems Inc. “The speed of sharing that information means there has to be a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

Congress is working to clarify what private information can be shared with the government and, conversely, what classified data can be shared with corporate targets of cybercrime.

In the meantime, Weatherford coordinates with the private sector within the confines of murky, outdated anti-hacking laws. “That’s a fine line, a delicate balance we walk every day when we talk about the information that we’re sharing,” he says. 

Dakin adds, “Mark’s not sitting on his hands and waiting for legislation. He’s dealing with what he’s got.” One resource is the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center. NCCIC (pronounced N-kick) is where all walks of life in the cyber-ecosystem put their heads together to counter threats. They include Wall Street firms as well as electric grid operators, whom Weatherford knows from his prior gig as chief security officer at the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a self-regulatory organization.

“The NCCIC is going to be the nexus of information,” Weatherford says. He predicts businesses in all critical industries “will have NCCIC on speed dial.” Refusing to join, while allowed, could be costly. The average price tag for a corporate data breach is $5.5 million, according to a March report from the Ponemon Institute, an independent privacy research firm. Conversely, strengthening computer security standards, as Homeland Security has urged Congress to do, could generate billions of dollars and thousands of jobs in a new market. Secure mobile access to all manner of services—from movies to big data analysis—could make the United States the world leader in cloud computing, market analysts say.

“Can you imagine hosting your bank account in China? Wouldn’t that give you the willies? We have the potential to establish competitive advantage,” Dakin says. “Mark can be the job security czar instead of the cybersecurity czar . . . Mark is the type of big thinker who can make a difference.”

>House leaders and many Senate Republicans, however, do not want DHS regulating computer security, and some say the department is incapable of leading cyber incident response. Weatherford believes much of the concern about DHS being less equipped than the defense and intelligence communities to supervise critical private networks is urban legend. “I consider us to be a united front in the federal government,” he says. “And I think DHS is taking the leadership role in cybersecurity. We work with NSA on a daily basis.”

It couldn’t hurt that Weatherford, a former California CISO, knows the Pentagon’s chief information officer, Teri Takai, a former CIO for the state. During their tenure together in the Schwarzenegger administration, Weatherford “brought fresh thinking and a strong focus on the need for government at all levels to understand and plan for the cyber threats,” Takai said in a statement. 

Weatherford is flanked by a fresh team of DHS cyber warriors—many of whom he hand-picked—including National
Cybersecurity Division Director John Streufert, who launched the government’s automated threat-monitoring movement while he was at the State Department, and Assistant Secretary for Cybersecurity and Communications Michael W. Locatis III, former Energy Department CIO.

“I am really trying to build a major league ball team,” Weatherford says. “And I think this is going to show very clearly in very short order that we’re able to do the mission that we’re charged with doing.”

Threatwatch Alert

Credential-stealing malware / Cyber espionage / Network intrusion / User accounts compromised

Ring of Cyber-Peepers Brought Down

See threatwatch report

JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Close [ x ] More from Nextgov
// November 26
X CLOSE Don't show again

Like us on Facebook