CISA Needs More Resources to Avoid ‘Whack-a-Mole’ Operation, Lawmaker Says

Rep. Lauren Underwood

Rep. Lauren Underwood Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The agency shelved routine work protecting federal networks to turn its attention to pressing pandemic and election issues. 

As a result of the pending election and the pandemic, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency delayed responding to requests from federal agencies and implementing elements of a core monitoring program, said chair of the House Homeland Security Committee’s cybersecurity subcommittee.

“I'm concerned that constantly being forced to shift resources to address the latest threat creates an unsustainable game of whack-a-mole that leaves our networks vulnerable,” Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., said. “We must identify an approach that provides CISA with the flexibility to scale up resources to address emerging threats while continuing its day-to-day operations.” 

Underwood, who was appointed the chair in September, spoke Tuesday during a conference hosted by the Cybersecurity Coalition and the Cyber Threat Alliance, which collectively represent major information and communications technology and cybersecurity companies.

Increasing CISA’s ability to scale up resources to address emerging threats without shortchanging its responsibility to federal networks is one of four areas she intends to prioritize in the next Congress.

“In 2017, state and local officials flooded CISA with requests for risk and vulnerability assessments—RVAs—creating a nine-month-long waiting list,” she said. “Under pressure from Congress, the waiting list for the RVAs seemed to disappear. We later learned that CISA had postponed RVAs for federal networks to meet the needs of state and local election officials.”

CISA has also garnered its forces toward helping the health sector during the pandemic, but in doing so, Underwood said the agency put on hold steps that would improve more comprehensive monitoring and protection of federal networks.

“CISA delayed deployment of continuous diagnostic and mitigation tools to certain federal networks in order to expedite deployment to the Department of Health and Human Services, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States,” she said. 

Underwood’s other priorities going into the 117th Congress include identifying systemic approaches to securing the internet ecosystem, improving the government’s prevention and response to ransomware attacks, and making elections more secure. 

In a series of tweets celebrating the agency’s second anniversary Monday, CISA Director Christopher Krebs also highlighted ransomware as a priority going forward. 

“We’re focused on ramping up a national strategic effort to combat this global scourge,” Krebs wrote. “We MUST improve defenses, break the business model, and take the bad guys out of the game. This is the most visible, disruptive cyber threat as I see it right now.”

Underwood said Senate action on House-passed H.R. 5823, which would establish a $400 million grant program for state and local governments at DHS, would be “a huge step forward” on that front. 

She also said there are a number of recommendations made by the Cyberspace Solarium Commission regarding systemically securing the internet worth further discussion.

“It's neither fair nor effective to put the whole burden on individuals to solve a systemic problem,” she said.