Cyber exercise shows need for closer federal-state coordination

A joint exercise in Houston last summer highlighted gaps in infrastructure protection.

critical infrastructure security (Ravil Sayfullin/

An attack by bad guys online and on the ground on a big city's critical infrastructure can straddle jurisdictional lines between local and federal authorities, making coordination among those groups critical but tricky, according to participants in a recent resilience exercise.

"We're outgunned when it comes to nation-state cyberattacks" that could target cyber and physical targets at the same time, said Mike Bell, chief technology officer at the Houston Police Department.

A drill last July dubbed Jack Voltaic 2.0, demonstrated gaps in operational and legal authorities as well as confusion about first response.

"The assumption is that [the Department of Homeland Security] will be there," Bell said at a Feb. 6 AFCEA event devoted to the lessons of the exercise. But that's not entirely the case, City of Houston personnel, regional emergency management officials and the Army Cyber Institute found out during the exercise.

Bell said that one of the biggest problems with response is figuring out who to notify. That can be complicated, as the lines between responders and their capabilities can be difficult to determine, he said. For instance, federal law enforcement can have a hard time responding to a mounting, but imminently dangerous cyber threat, because the actors may not have violated any criminal statutes, he said.

Municipalities embroiled in a combined cyber and physical critical infrastructure attack can't solely depend on Computer Emergency Readiness Teams sent by the DHS National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, said Bell. "They can give advice, but not a lot." NCICC can provide national view of what's going on but is not resourced for big response to local attacks, he said.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at DHS is working to "create a visible logical, useful connection" that state and local governments, as well as industry, can turn to for help, NCCIC Director John Felker said.

The report on the exercise recommends closer coordination among federal civilian and defense agencies and state and local governments. One idea is to have the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy and DHS work together to develop a campaign to integrate the Jack Voltaic model into the exercise framework at the national level.

The report also recommends legislation to create National Guard civil support teams that can serve state governors to bridge federal and non-federal response efforts during cyber incidents.