Here’s Why Cybersecurity Remains a Challenge for the Justice Department

Attorney General Eric Holder

Attorney General Eric Holder Jacquelyn Martin/AP

DOJ has requested millions more in funding and staffed up new divisions to specifically handle cyber investigations.

The Justice Department’s handling of cybersecurity remains one of its biggest management challenges, according to a recent memo to Attorney General Eric Holder from the agency’s top watchdog.

In recent years, the department has requested millions more in funding and staffed up new divisions to specifically handle cyber investigations and promote information-sharing operations.

There’s no dispute the department has laid ambitious plans for combating the upsurge in cyber threats. But less clear is how effective it’s been at coordinating those plans -- across DOJ and the government as a whole.

“This increasing proliferation of cybersecurity events creates pressing challenges for the department to properly coordinate its cyber resources to work in concert toward the same goal, and to ensure that information related to cyber threats is shared and disseminated in an appropriate manner,” DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz wrote in the memo.

DOJ has turned an ever-growing share of its attention to cybersecurity.

“Cybercrime is becoming everything in crime,” FBI Director James Comey said in a 60 Minutes interview in October.

A number of offices within the agency have been tasked with meeting the cyber challenge, according to the IG. They include the FBI Cyber Division, which leads DOJ’s investigative cyber efforts, the National Security Division’s cyber unit, the Criminal Division’s section on computer crime and intellectual property and the growing number of U.S. attorneys who prosecute cyber cases.

The FBI Cyber Division also leads the National Cyber Investigative Joint Task Force, which the IG called the “focal point” for coordinating information sharing on cyber threat investigations” across the federal government and state and local agencies.

DOJ has asked for additional funding to cover these myriad operations, a move that “reflects its continued recognition of cybersecurity as a top priority,” the IG said.

All told, DOJ requested a total cybersecurity budget of $722 million in this year’s budget -- an increase of $7.6 million compared to last year’s. That includes increased funding to both better protect the department’s own computer networks as well as to respond to and investigate cybercrimes nationwide.

Over the last two years alone, DOJ has sought nearly $100 million in additional funding and an increase of 150 staffers for the FBI’s Next Generation Cyber Initiative, a two-year-old program to specifically tackle cyber intrusion investigations. Previous cyber efforts lumped together any crimes that involved computers.

Horowitz’s memo said his office is still reviewing that initiative’s effectiveness.

Coordinating information sharing related to cyber threats also remains a challenge. In February 2013, President Barack Obama issued an executive order promoting information sharing between the federal government and the private-sector operators of power grids, banks and other “critical infrastructure.” The order also called on the FBI to begin sharing cyberthreat information with private companies.

Last year, the IG “stressed the need” for DOJ to “aggressively implement” its part of the executive order.

The agency appears to have taken that recommendation to heart.

Earlier this year, the FBI stood up its “key partnership engagement unit,” which aims to share “sector specific threat information” with the executives of key industries, including classified briefings.

But other agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service also offer information-sharing programs to the private sector.

DHS’ fee-based cyberthreat-sharing service allows companies to sign up to have threat information delivered automatically to their anti-malware systems. So far, companies from half of the 16 critical industries identified by DHS have signed onto the service.

“To avoid duplication, when sharing information with the private sector, the [Justice] Department must coordinate with other federal agencies performing similar tasks,” the IG’s memo concluded.