Government Isn't Sharing Cyber Threats As Promised, Private Sector Says

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Classification regimes make it difficult for cyber firms to share threat information with clients and aid adversaries, industry officials say.

When it comes to cyber threat information sharing, it’s government that’s not holding up its end of the bargain, industry officials told lawmakers Thursday.

Government classification frequently hinders cybersecurity companies’ ability to share information with clients and others in the private sector, effectively giving an adversary a broader playing ground, witnesses told members of the House Homeland Security Committee’s cybersecurity panel.

For example, when the U.S. Navy was breached by Iranian government-linked hackers using a very simple attack vector in 2014, government investigators’ hesitancy to share information may have put private-sector companies in danger of similar attacks, Intel Security Vice President Scott Montgomery said.

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“By classifying the event, what we’re doing is restricting the number of people who can lend assistance and also allowing the adversary to operate with impunity,” Montgomery said. “If we can release this information sooner, we’re actually affecting not only government, but private-sector organizations that [are vulnerable to] this same very, very common very low-hanging fruit attack.”

That particular attack relied on a common and known cyber exploit industry could easily patch against if it hadn’t already, he said.

Congress passed legislation in 2015 shielding companies from legal liability when they share cyber threat information with the government. The new law has helped ease the path for information to travel in one direction, industry representatives say, but done less in the other direction.  

If government could more readily share threat information—even wiped of much identifying information and in a classified setting with company officials who hold security clearances—it would greatly aid private companies that may face similar threats, said Daniel Nutkis, CEO of HITRUST Alliance, a nonprofit cybersecurity organization for the health care sector.

“The term I can’t stand hearing is ‘active law enforcement investigation,’ which shuts down sharing,” he said. “They’ll reach out, they’ll ask for a whole bunch of stuff or we’ll share a whole bunch of stuff with them and then everything stops. … We’re not sure why they can’t share back. We’re trying to work the same incident they are.”

There are ways in which the government has made improvements, Palo Alto Networks Vice President Ryan Gillis said, especially when multiple federal agencies work on the same private-sector breach.

Such cross-agency responses are common in cyberspace where the Homeland Security Department may be helping a critical infrastructure provider mitigate a particular breach while the FBI seeks information for a possible prosecution and an industry-specific regulator is gathering its own information.

The FBI and Secret Service, which investigates cyber crimes against financial firms, have begun working together more seamlessly when their jurisdictions overlap, Gillis said.

It’s also much less common for different federal agencies to require breached companies and private threat investigators to abide by separate nondisclosure agreements with different requirements, he said.

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