Results of cyber drill will help shape final version of response plan

Government, industry participants test procedures in simulated attack as officials put finishing touches on strategy.

Lessons learned this week from the Homeland Security Department's third large-scale cybersecurity drill will help refine the National Cyber Incident Response Plan, which will be finalized for release later this year.

Cyber Storm III kicked off on Tuesday to test the plan, which the Obama administration developed to guide agencies and companies that would work together during cyberattacks.

The drill is a tabletop exercise in which narratives describing an attack scenario are e-mailed to participants, who then follow procedures detailed in the response plan. Participants include seven Cabinet-level agencies, 11 state governments and 60 companies representing the information technology, communications, chemical, electrical and transportation sectors.

The two previous drills, conducted in 2007 and 2008, tested government and industry's ability to recover from cyberattacks crippling computer networks and systems. They revealed various shortcomings in information sharing and coordination. Findings from those exercises influenced the draft version of the National Cyber Incident Response Plan, as well as the scenarios posed in Cyber Storm III, which won't be revealed until completion of the exercise.

"The sense of excitement is palpable," said Phil Reitinger, deputy undersecretary for Homeland Security's National Protection and Programs Directorate during a briefing with reporters on Wednesday. "Cybersecurity is beyond the capability of any one agency or one government or one private sector entity. We're looking at how they respond to a number of attacks, but more importantly, how they collaborate."

Results of the exercise will be incorporated into the final version of the plan, a DHS spokesperson confirmed.

"This is the plan we're using now; we want to make sure that it remains a living document," Reitinger said. "You don't write the document so when 'XYZ' happens, we'll do 'PQR.' You have to maintain agility."

Findings from the drill also will guide DHS and other agencies as they upgrade their internal cybersecurity procedures and capabilities.

Whether DHS eventually will test government and industry's ability to respond to known attacks on actual networks remains to be seen.

"Live fire in cybersecurity is hard to do because people don't want their networks shut down," Reitinger said. "But an exercise using a simulated [isolated] network would be interesting."