Building Cyber Resiliency in the U.S. Government

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The public sector is making progress but must embrace technological innovation.

Security is a top global concern. Attacks across the software supply chain, zero-days in widely-used email services and ransomware attacks on critical infrastructure and industries demonstrate that adversaries are getting bolder and more disruptive. 

For more than 30 years, I served in the U.S. Army and focused on protecting our nation’s cybersecurity and critical infrastructure. I completed multiple tours overseas, spent time at the National Security Agency and finished my Army career as a leader in U.S. Cyber Command. Today, I’m a cybersecurity leader at Google Cloud, serving as Google Public Sector’s first chief information security officer. As I look back on my career and into the future, one thing is clear: the U.S. government is making progress but must embrace technological innovation to strengthen our cyber resiliency. 

The U.S. government should take full advantage of modern, cloud-based technology to help accomplish its mission. For example, we had to physically separate differing network infrastructure in Afghanistan. My desk had three machines, each with its own line to a data center. Creating three times the infrastructure to and from every data center, area distribution node, building and finally to the desktop is incredibly costly and labor intensive. And in the age of end-to-end encryption, it’s also unnecessary in most cases. 

The public sector should re-orient toward modern security practices and hold vendors accountable to their technology track records. The U.S. government must transform its approach to cybersecurity, and blow past the security theater by investing in modern public cloud environments that are designed with built-in—not bolted-on—security protections that reduce cyber risk and potential nation state attacks.

During a deployment in Southwest Asia, it took our team over a year and endless resources to upgrade our operating systems, and unfortunately many of these remote upgrades failed, requiring a significant amount of sensitive data to be stored on the end user device. Consequently, the cost to constantly patch and upgrade our operating systems was ongoing given the ever-growing attack surface across each endpoint. Many of today’s U.S. agencies are running on costly, outdated, insecure technology that foreign governments and other nefarious actors have breached. It is no longer a luxury, but a necessity that the public sector modernize its technological infrastructure to protect constituents and administrators alike. 

Despite these setbacks, we are making progress. COVID-19 forced the Department of Defense to embrace modern cloud-based collaboration tools. While the initial versions of the tools were not secure, the forced movement to the cloud provided greater productivity for the government. Notably, late last year the U.S. Army partnered with Google to provide 250,000 active-duty enlisted members with Google Workspace, enabling the Army to leverage cloud-based collaboration tools to meet the needs of a niche set of users in the Army in the training base. With first-hand experience, I have witnessed how essential public-private partnership is in protecting our critical infrastructure. 

Cyber resiliency requires tech accountability. As seen in the Biden Administration’s new National Cybersecurity Strategy, the U.S. government is calling for greater responsibility among technology companies themselves. As one of the world’s largest technology providers, Google takes this very seriously, and agrees that more collaboration between the public and private sectors is crucial to national security.

The U.S. government is perhaps the best customer in the world to force systemic changes among tech companies’ cybersecurity practices. It is the responsibility of technology leaders and  cloud providers to be active partners as our customers deploy securely on their platform, not delineators of where their responsibility ends. 

I’ve experienced the immediate need for the U.S. government to take action and improve the public sector’s resiliency against cyber attacks and nation-state hackers. With cyber attacks on the rise, the U.S. government now has an opportunity to reshape its thinking on its cybersecurity strategy. The defense of outdated and insecure systems requires urgent change to better protect the government and civilians alike. 

Steve Hager is the CISO of Google Public Sector where he provides oversight for security, compliance and risk on Google’s products and infrastructure related to the public sector. Previously, Steve served in the United States Army, where he was promoted to the rank of Major General. As the mobilization assistant to the Commander of U.S. Cyber Command, and deputy commander of the Cyber National Mission Force, he executed global full spectrum cyber operations on behalf of the Department of Defense to protect the nation’s critical infrastructure.