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White House Debuts Dot-Gov Cyber Enforcement Squad

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reference the timetable around data breach notification.

The Obama administration will spend about $20 million on a new White House cyber unit to oversee dot-gov network security, including, for the first time, making sure agencies notify victims of breaches according to a specific timetable.  

The "E-gov Cyber" division, housed within the Office of Management and Budget, is aimed at making clear OMB's role in governmentwide cybersecurity: policymaking and enforcement. The newly enacted 2014 Federal Information Security Modernization Act formally tasks the Department of Homeland Security with operational aspects of guarding the dot-gov network, and cements OMB’s strategic role.

For 2014 and 2015, Congress "provided OMB resources for improving cybersecurity oversight analytics," Acting U.S. Chief Information Officer Lisa Schlosser told Nextgov on Monday, referring to the $20 million funding allocation.

Obama’s 2016 budget proposal requests $35 million for that account.

In partnership with the National Security Council, DHS and the Commerce Department, E-gov Cyber will “conduct data-driven, risk-based oversight of agency governmentwide security programs,” Schlosser said during an interview.

The squad also will continue to create new policies, as threats morph, Congress passes legislation and agency technologies advance.

Devoting a White House office to cyber governance also reflects a growing concern about computer breaches at agencies, as the White House, State Department and Office of Personnel Management recently experienced first hand. 

Schlosser acknowledged that E-gov Cyber, despite its resources, will not solve the government’s hacker problem.

"Persistent cyber threats will remain a challenge for the federal government and actually for the nation," she said. "But through some of these coordinated protection, response mechanisms, close collaboration between all the federal cybersecurity partners, we really believe we are in the position to better mitigate the attacks when they do occur.” 

Separately, the White House has issued legislative proposals that would mete out stiffer criminal penalties for computer breaches inside and outside government, and provide liability protections for companies that share information about intrusions they've experienced.

Another measure would create a nationwide requirement that hacked private firms inform affected customers about a breach within 30 days. 

E-gov Cyber also will hold federal departments to a consistent timeline for notification, albeit with a bit more wiggle room for extenuating circumstances.

Current policy essentially states agencies must tell citizens "as quickly as practicable," an OMB official said. “We will want to ensure that there is some flexibility," for example, when the situation involves a law enforcement investigation. 

Also, with some incidents, it takes more time to assess damage to determine exactly who the victims were and the number of victims.

"That has to be taken into account, when you start the clock, as to when you need to notify people. That nuance will be built into any policy updates," the official said. And in general, OMB will make sure the current policy is updated to align with best practices and current statutes.

E-gov Cyber will be responsible for ensuring such guidelines are followed by each agency. Enforcement will wield more carrots than sticks.  

One existing incentive is the so-called continuous diagnostic and mitigation program, through which DHS provides agencies with real-time security technologies and consulting services for free, as far as upfront costs.

Then there are CyberStat sessions -- data-driven reviews where OMB points out missing controls, like the absence of automatic configuration updates, automated bug fixes, or smartcard identity verification. 

“In 2015, E-gov Cyber will target oversight through CyberStat reviews, based on agencies' risk factors, determined by the cybersecurity performance data that we monitor," Schlosser said. “We will be focusing on the implementation of continuous diagnostics and monitoring."

This approach is more like a nudge than a prod. Each agency and OMB hone in on what safeguards are missing and collaboratively chart a plan of action.

There apparently is a bit of public shaming, too, though officials are loath to describe it as such. Agency security postures are published on this Cross-agency Priority Goals website

There is a website "that is posted out there that shows the progress of agencies on all these initiatives," Schlosser said. Along with the CyberStat meetings and other measures, "that’s how we monitor and enforce agency implementation of agency policies and programs.”

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