recommended reading

The Next President Will Face a Cyber Crisis. Here's How to Handle It

Orhan Cam/Shutterstock.com

The next U.S. president will face a cyber landscape of unparalleled complexity with little time or flexibility to bring it under control.

Begin with a federal government proved unable to defend itself against breaches at the White House, State Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Office of Personnel Management. Add a private sector that’s suffered breach after breach and 16 sectors of poorly secured critical infrastructure where a destructive hack could prove deadly.

There are nation-state adversaries, one of whom, Russia, has brazenly hacked a major political party and another, China, that continues to pilfer company secrets for economic advantage. The U.S. also faces ongoing cyber threats from Iran, North Korea, and terrorist and criminal groups.

» Get the best federal technology news and ideas delivered right to your inbox. Sign up here.

The next president will inherit initiatives to shore up federal agency cybersecurity and to improve cyber information sharing within critical infrastructure sectors, studies on the tradeoffs between strong encryption and national security and how to secure cyberspace for the next decade, and proposals to rejigger how cyber is managed in both the Defense and Homeland Security departments.

There will also surely be new crises. The research and advisory group Forrester predicted last week the 45th president will face a major cyber incident during her or his first 100 days in office.  

Given these competing priorities and an uncertain future, it will be extremely difficult for the next president to make progress. Here are five high-level priorities that experts and former federal officials tell Nextgov should guide the next president.

Build a Real Cyber Strategy

The Obama administration has published dozens of strategies, frameworks and guidelines aimed at shoring up vulnerabilities in government computer systems, bolstering private sector security and promoting peace in international cyberspace.

When it comes to responding to real-world cyber events, however—whether it’s the China-linked breach of records about more than 21 million current and former federal employees from OPM or an encrypted iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook—the administration has typically been caught without a firm plan or position and been left to make policy on the fly, analysts say.

Ideally, the next president should develop a series of big-picture cyber priorities clear enough the average citizen could predict his or her responses to some new challenge as reliably as she could to a new environmental challenge, said Jason Healey, senior research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a former director of infrastructure protection at the White House.

“We know President Trump would focus on cheap energy, not the environment, and President Clinton would care more about the environment,” Healey said. “But do these administrations think that the government or the private sector is the locus of activity when it comes to cyber defense? I don’t know. Do we think it’s more important to use cyber as an espionage weapon or to plug holes in the internet? I don’t know … If we wanted to get rid of malaria, we’d create a vision, set a goal, arrange priorities around that goal and measure toward it. I don’t see why we can’t do that here.”

Create Playbooks

Even the best policy won’t provide perfect guidance for every situation, especially because cybersecurity, by its very nature, is bound up in numerous other issues ranging from national security and economic security to personal privacy and online innovation.

The solution is to integrate cyber into the administration’s broader planning, said Frank Cilluffo, director of The George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security and a former special assistant to the president for homeland security during the Bush administration.  

The Democratic National Committee hack, "was that a cyber problem or a Russia problem? Well, obviously, it was a mixture of both," Cilluffo said.

That means the administration needs to have plans in place to deter aggression and to respond when it happens, he said.

“Russia is not the same as China, which is not the same as Iran or a foreign terrorist organization or criminal enterprise,” Cilluffo said. “We need to have playbooks in place so we’re not opining out loud in the midst of crises."

Build Cyber Norms

The government has endorsed a handful of norms for how nations ought to act in cyberspace, including several promulgated by a United Nations group of government experts. The scope of cyber threats has shifted so rapidly, however, the U.S. often seems to be left deciding what’s out of bounds after it’s happened rather than before.

The next administration should work toward a broader global consensus on what’s acceptable and unacceptable in cyberspace, experts said. That will include setting hard limits on what counts as merely espionage, which is generally considered acceptable in cyberspace, and what goes a step beyond espionage, such as Russia’s alleged release of hacked DNC emails during the 2016 election.

It also means showing restraint when increased militarization of cyberspace might be otherwise beneficial, said Bruce McConnell, global vice president of the EastWest Institute think tank and a former deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity at the Homeland Security Department.

“As the U.S. continues to grow [its cyber] capability, it has the effect of making other countries do the same thing,” McConnell said. “I think it’s incumbent on leaders of the free world to step back and ask ‘what are the limits on this?’”

Choose Priorities

One thing that’s delayed progress in defensive cybersecurity has been taking on too much at once, said Martin Libicki, an adjunct management scientist at the RAND Corporation and visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. 

Instead of a program to secure critical infrastructure against cyberattacks, Libicki recommended a narrower but more ambitious program to fully secure the electrical grid.

"The tendency is to go off in five different directions and not make much progress in any direction,” Libicki said. “Electricity is more specific than critical infrastructure. If you say critical infrastructure, you end up throwing in the kitchen sink. You can be specific and say ‘whatever happens, the power will not run out,’ and you can say to banks and telecoms ‘here are lessons learned to apply to other critical infrastructure.'"

Shift Focus to the Private Sector

Finally, the next president should figure out ways to better incentivize the private sector to improve its own security.

Some of that should come in the forms of research and development conducted or funded by government research agencies both into how basic security measures and into how cyber insurance and other incentives can improve security, said Ian Wallace, co-director of New America's Cybersecurity Initiative and a former defense policy counselor at the British Embassy in Washington.

Regulatory agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission should also focus on ways to make security a higher priority for shareholders and for companies during mergers and acquisitions, said Columbia University’s Healey.

“The private sector is the most important actor,” Healey said. “That means shareholders need to get involved if a company isn’t taking responsibility. We need to look for places where a small bit of government action can have an outsize impact.”

Threatwatch Alert

Misplaced data

8 Million We Heart It Accounts and Passwords Exposed

See threatwatch report

JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Close [ x ] More from Nextgov