Cybersecurity staff won't be furloughed in shutdown, DHS officials say

Homeland Security Department personnel and contractor support staff who perform cybersecurity functions would not be furloughed during a government shutdown, DHS officials said.

As the prospects dim for Republicans, Democrats and the White House to broker a deal for funding agency services, federal departments are racing to determine which employees will have to stay at home when the current stopgap spending bill expires Friday midnight. Federal law states the government must stop all activities except those "necessary for the safety of human life or protection of property."

Given the uncertainty surrounding which staff are essential, it is possible that adversaries, believing employees' guards are down, might view this period of confusion as an opportune time to infiltrate government systems, some observers said.

When asked if Homeland Security is contracting out for additional incident-response personnel to monitor for potential intrusions, department officials said operational plans still are being finalized, but their present understanding is DHS' cybersecurity employees would continue working during a shutdown, since their duties fall under the statutory exemption.

Some government consultants said Homeland Security might not necessarily have to bring in more staff, but the department should retain its entire cybersecurity workforce during a shutdown.

"I think they have the adequate resources," said Patrick Burke, senior vice president in the national security sector at SRA International. "It's making sure they don't do a peanut butter spread in terms of cutting back staff."

If DHS receives reports that an attack is under way, then the department likely has the authority to hire additional personnel support, he said.

As for whether officials already are augmenting their information security staffs, "they may not want to broadcast that as it gets into [operations security]," which is the practice of safeguarding information about an enterprise that, if made public, could aid U.S. enemies, Burke added.

"We certainly hope that agency cybersecurity personnel, including contractors, have been deemed essential personnel and thus somewhat shielded from the impact of a shutdown," said Tom Conway, director of federal business development at network security firm McAfee. "In any case, McAfee's federal team continues to be available 24-7 to help agencies navigate through these uncertain times."