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DHS urged to create reserve cadre of cyber experts

Homeland Security analysts work in a cybersecurity center in 2011.

Homeland Security analysts work in a cybersecurity center in 2011. // Mark J. Terrill/AP file photo

A cyber skills task force has recommended that the Homeland Security Department build a reserve army of cyber specialists  from across government and industry to address emergencies.

Last week, the task force briefed DHS leaders on recommendations for filling a talent void and molding top-notch cyber talent  to meet future, unknown network threats.

One objective is to establish a National Guard-like band of cyber experts, called the “CyberReserve,” to ensure capable professionals are on tap in times of national crises. There is precedent for this sort of organization in Estonia, as well as the electric utility sector. The key, according to the task force's report and DHS officials, will be ensuring Homeland Security’s rolodex is up to date with relevant former personnel now at other agencies and companies, as well as unaffiliated experts from government and industry.

“Surge rosters do require active management,” DHS Deputy Secretary Jane Holl Lute told Nextgov. “It’s not something where you type up a page and throw it in the drawer. People’s skills have to be current.”

She added, “If you go to an emergency room and something is critically wrong with, let’s say a spine -- they just don’t call in any doctor. They call in a specialist.” Lute expects the department would look to Defense Department components and veterans organizations, as well as outside groups, for people with rare skills.

The task force counseled department officials to partner with the FBI’s regional InfraGard program, a public-private partnership gathering industry, federal officials, police and local communities to share information about crime and terrorism. The group also suggested working  with the Secret Service’s Electronic Crimes Task Forces, which marshal authorities, prosecutors, business representatives and academics to investigate cyber incidents in various cities.

Congress in recent years has pushed for a formal cyber national guard, Lute noted. A 2002 law allowed Homeland Security to create a “NET Guard” comprising volunteer experts from across the country for cyber response. Stalled House cybersecurity reforms would mandate DHS consider using grants to jumpstart that initiative and eventually maintain it through a “national volunteer experts registry system.”

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves told Nextgov in 2011 that his country was creating a similar cyber corps. The government-funded “white-hatted hacker organization” supplements Estonia’s national guard, he said. “Since we live in this modern era, it's not only riding around in the woods with guns,” Ilves explained. “So why don't we set this thing up where you can volunteer and we will support you materially to work on defense? It's only about three months old but its widely popular among geeks.”

There are parallels in the U.S. power sector, in which electric companies have agreements, sometimes with local competitors, to restore service during weather emergencies together, the DHS task force report stated. Teams of technicians from, for example, Entergy and Florida Power and Light, mobilize after tropical storms. Overtime pay and equipment resources are negotiated in advance of a meteorological event. For the DHS CyberReserves, similar terms could be brokered with non-departmentall computer engineers for specific cyber events.

This story was updated with several minor clarifications.

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