Cyber Officials Ask: How Do You Prove Cyber Protections Are Worth The Investment?


When your whole job is preventing attacks from happening, it can be hard to prove how effective you are.

It's difficult to prove to budget makers exactly how effective cybersecurity protections are, according to one federal cyber official.

The better the technology, the more attacks it will prevent, and intrusion prevention systems often collect data on the number of thwarted attacks. But what's the best way to communicate how many attacks an agency would have experienced without the technology, and how useful the system is in deterring attackers from making attempts in the first place?

At the Secret Service's Network Intrusion Program, securing funding is a major challenge, especially when higher-ups need to be persuaded a specific tool is concretely valuable, Program Manager Bernard Wilson said at the Government Thought Leadership Summit event in Washington on Tuesday.

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Disseminating information and training to the 225 agents within the program gets expensive, Wilson said.

"If we cannot show a return on investment that next fiscal year, I will not receive funding," he added.

The Network Intrusion Program often responds to completed attacks after the victims notify the task force, so the group has focused on using metrics to prove it reduces "dwell time"—the period of inaction following a documented intrusion that allows attackers to steal more information—after attacks.

"That's something we want to state before Congress," Wilson said.

At the Commerce Department, cyber officials are focused on providing security professionals with adequate prevention tools, but also acknowledging some attacks are inevitable and prioritizing the mitigation of those attacks, acting Chief Information Officer Rod Turk said.

Asked whether he'd consider planting fake cyberattacks to measure exactly how effective Commerce's protections are, Turk said he hadn't. Instead of taking that approach, which he likened to the Transportation Security Administration placing fake guns to evaluate how thorough its agents are, "we do want to provide tools [and] processes for our folks to give them a reasonable chance of being successful" at mitigating attacks, he said.