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How the Government Makes It Easier to Share Cybersecurity Data

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John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology and government. He is currently the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys

I get a sinking feeling lately while watching my beloved Redskins trying to compete in the NFL. Blown coverage, bad passes and missed opportunities are sure signs the team just isn’t effectively communicating despite having a lot of raw talent. And when the opponent is doing everything right, with its quarterback taking three steps and firing off a pass without looking, knowing a receiver will be there, it makes it difficult to compete. Teams that can communicate and remain in sync win games. Others will forever be playing catch-up.

It’s not too different in the world of cybersecurity, with the home team again having a distinct disadvantage. These days, the bad guys love to communicate and collaborate. Malware creators, hackers, various threat actor experts at all stages of an attack, organized crime and even nation states involved in attacks tend to share their discoveries about how to find and use exploits and vulnerabilities. Even the source code used to create the internet of things botnet known as Mirai was recently released for use by other attackers.

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To make the cybersecurity game competitive again, defenders need to open similar lines of communication, letting everyone know what they are being hit with, what techniques the attackers are using and what they are doing to mitigate those attacks. Only it’s not as easy to share information for the defense. There are too many other, nonsecurity-related issues involved.

Will sharing threat data make a company seem weak or harm customer confidence? Why should a company help a competitor defeat a threat that caused so much local harm? And business and industry also often need to ask how doing the right thing will benefit their organization.

The government’s position has always been that we are all in this together, which is why the Department of Homeland Security supported the creation of Information Sharing and Analysis Centers to share data about threats to national infrastructure, like utility companies and defense contractors.

There is a whole system in place that allows key industries to share threat data with DHS and among each other, to keep the community aware of what dangers are out there and how to defend against them. Many ISACs do things like strip proprietary information out of those threat feeds to alleviate competition type concerns while keeping the all-important threat information flowing.

By most accounts, ISACs have been successful. According to the National Council of ISACs, its members have successfully provided operational services such as risk mitigation, incident response and information sharing to protect critical infrastructures, and that “many ISACs have a track record of responding to and sharing actionable and relevant information more quickly than government partners.”

But now the government wants to move beyond just protecting critical infrastructure. Why not try to give all U.S.-based businesses the chance to collaborate among themselves and with the DHS? President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2015 designed to just that, and that effort is finally bearing fruit.

The Information Sharing and Analysis Organization, led by the University of Texas at San Antonio, is championing that effort. ISAO can be thought of sort of like ISAC for everyone, or at least everyone else outside of a critical infrastructure business.

“ISAOs may allow organizations to robustly participate in DHS information sharing programs even if they do not fit into an existing critical infrastructure sector, seek to collaborate with other companies in different ways (regionally, for example), or lack sufficient resources to share directly with the government,” ISAO said in a statement. “ISAOs may participate in existing DHS cybersecurity information sharing programs and contribute to near-real-time sharing of cyber threat indicators.”

But to be successful, ISAOs need a framework. A conference about how to set up and support an ISAO for any industry is planned for 2017, and the first four standards documents to help do that were released in October. They include:

• Introduction to Information Sharing and Analysis Organizations: An overview that previews the full ISAO document series and the scope of future guidelines and standards.

• Guidelines for Establishing an Information Sharing and Analysis Organization: Guides readers through critical considerations in creating an effective organization.

• Introduction to Information Sharing: A conceptual framework for information sharing concepts, the types of cybersecurity-related information an ISAO might want to share, ways to facilitate information sharing, and privacy and security concerns to be considered.

• U.S. Government Relations, Programs and Services: Describes relevant federal laws and regulations on cybersecurity information sharing, as well as state and local requirements. It includes a comprehensive listing of government resources available to ISAOs and their members.

With a new president incoming, many existing executive orders will be terminated or at least scrutinized. But let’s hope this one remains in effect. Even if it doesn’t, ISAO has come far enough that the effort should be able to continue, though it would be nice if DHS is allowed to keep the lines of communication open.

Ultimately, if our adversaries are working together, we need to make sure we are collaborating just as diligently on defense.

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