Contractors Say Proposed Hack Reporting Rules Aren’t Strict Enough

Sergey Nivens/

'This is exactly the interpretive, decentralized behavior that has produced the current state of network security vulnerabilities.'

Draft rules covering the reporting of contractor data breaches offer agencies too much flexibility complain an unlikely bunch of constituents: the contractors themselves. 

Proposed guidelines for "Improving Cybersecurity Protections in Federal Acquisitions," published in August, are aimed at securing government data housed in agency systems run by contractors and corporate-owned systems.

But the guidance leaves the relevant regulatory language up to each agency’s discretion, argues the Professional Services Council, a federal contracting organization.

Meanwhile, the IT Alliance for Public Sector alleges the code-sharing site the White House used to collect public feedback barred certain individuals from commenting. And Blue Cross Blue Shield, where a hack at subsidiary Anthem affected federal employee subscribers, contends a stipulation allowing agencies to scan company networks could actually undermine security. 

"We view the current draft version of the guidance as being too little, too late and too flexible," council president Stan Soloway said in comments dated Sept. 10. "This is exactly the interpretive, decentralized behavior that has produced the current state of network security vulnerabilities." Contractors in recent years have been hit by hacks that compromised federal employee retirement plan data, background check investigations and U.S. Transportation Command documents, to name a few. 

Soloway said the new Office of Management and Budget draft guidance offers too little in the way of uniform terms and conditions, offering "only generalized statements with explicit authority for agencies to deviate from it almost at will.”

Agencies are encouraged to pick which National Institute of Science Technology documents apply to individual solicitations, he added.

The proposal is “too late” because many agencies have already taken similar policy actions, "thus undercutting any hope for uniform, governmentwide guidance," Soloway said. 

OMB should either reconcile discrepancies among the various federal policies and be more specific about contract terms or scrap the rulemaking effort altogether, he said. On the second option, Soloway specifically said: "Withdraw the OMB guidance completely and default to the standard federal acquisition regulatory process to establish the governmentwide contracting standards.”

Another problem he sees is a double standard on deadlines for reporting data incidents. 

"Timelines for reporting and taking actions must be consistent for both government and industry. Currently, the breach reporting requirements for a government agency, such as OPM, are different than the expectations for a private sector firm without discernible reasons," Soloway said. 

Government agencies have an hour to report the detection of unauthorized access to the Department of Homeland Security; two hours to notify DHS of the discovery of a denial of service attack, a day  to communicating that malicious code has been found; a week to report improper computer use; and a month to communicate intrusion attempts. 

Reporting deadlines for contractors vary across the board. 

Similarly, the IT Alliance for Public Sector, or ITAPS, on Sept. 10 provided OMB with two major recommendations -- revamp the guidelines to align them with other agency cyber efforts underway or withdraw the proposal entirely. 

Also, the trade group pointed out limitations of the GitHub website to collect comments that could have barred some voices from being heard. The terms of service require that users must have the authority to bind their employer or company to the same conditions. 

"Because most employees of companies (and government employees as well) are not in any way authorized to bind their employer or company in a legal agreement --  this creates a severe limitation on the universe of possible commenters and respondents and restricts the opportunity for interested parties and the public at large from participating in this process,"  Trey Hodgkins, ITAPS public sector senior vice president said in a Sept. 9 letter to OMB leaders. 

Remarks filed by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association expressed unease about a stipulation allowing agency officials to probe a contractor's internal corporate systems periodically or in the event of an emergency. The worry is that the scanning tools could inadvertently introduce new security weaknesses. "Depending upon the particular configuration of a contractor’s systems, such an approach may increase the cybersecurity risk" to government information," BCBS officials said in their GitHub submission. 

The public feedback period closed Sept. 10. Now OMB is reviewing the comments received to develop final guidance, according to the proposal’s official website.

(Image via Sergey Nivens/