Troubleshooting telecom security

Among many other duties, the cyber/ telecom chief would supervise the National Communications Service, created by the Defense Department after the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

A little-noticed provision in Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff's reorganization plan creates a higher profile for telecommunications security but also raises questions about how that mission will be defined.

Chertoff in July created a new assistant secretary post combining oversight for cybersecurity and telecommunications, elevating those priorities within the department's management structure. It was one of many changes in his reorganization, portions of which must be approved by Congress.

The new position, while not yet filled, had been widely an-ticipated and promoted in legislation as the nation's cyberczar. The telecommunications portfolio, by comparison, has received less attention.

Even so, most industry officials approve of including telecommunications within the new post.

'It's the appropriate environment for it,' said Joe Farren, a spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Association, a Washington-based trade group for wireless telecommunications companies.

'Combining cybersecurity with telecommunications breaks down the stovepipes,' said Shannon Kellogg, director of government affairs for RSA Security Inc. of Bedford, Mass., an IT solutions company. 'This is being driven by convergence with global networks and the Internet.'

Still, there are questions about how the new post will interact with other telecommunications oversight units within the department and with other federal agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission.

In a response to Chertoff's plan, the 13 Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee wrote: 'It is unclear whether the assistant secretary for cybersecurity and telecommunications will have authority over all telecommunications activities throughout the department, such as the Safecom program and the Wireless Management Office, both of which seek to improve communications interoperability for first-responder equipment.'

Project Safecom, which promotes interoperability among wireless devices, radios and cell phones used by first responders, is run by the department's Science and Technology Directorate. The Wireless Management Office, which oversees wireless IT policies, is located in the office of the CIO. The new post would be part of a new, separate Preparedness Directorate, which must be approved by Congress.

Among many other duties, the cyber/telecom chief would supervise the National Communications Service, created by the Defense Department after the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 to establish reliable communications for heads of state and top federal officials during emergencies. The telecom portfolio also includes the Wireless Priority Service, which lets government leaders sign up to get priority cell phone service during disasters.

Chertoff did not specify in his plan how the new position would interact with other telecommunications-related homeland security efforts at DHS or at other federal agencies, particularly at the FCC. DHS officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The FCC, for one, has been playing a major role in overseeing the telecommunications needs of police, fire and emergency responders, including the need for sufficient radio spectrum without interference with cell phone calls.

Last month, Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) asked DHS to weigh in on how the FCC allocates spectrum in the 2-GHz range to ensure that first-responder priorities are considered. Also, the FCC last year authorized a $4 billion spectrum deal with Nextel Communications Inc. that includes expanded radio spectrum for public safety first responders.

The FCC also oversees implementation of enhanced 911 programs to add geographic information within 911 calls from cell phones and to give 911 call centers the opportunity for quicker restoration of service after a disaster. It isn't clear whether the new cyber/telecom czar would be involved in either of those efforts, industry officials said.

In addition, there are unresolved telecommunications policy issues that DHS may be asked to address, such as whether cell phone service ought to be cut off within subway tunnels when there is a terrorist threat to prevent remote detonation of bombs by cell phone command.

Another issue is setting security standards for areas in which IT overlaps with telecommunications, using voice, data and video formats, said Matt Walton, chairman of the Emergency Interoperability Coalition, a group advocating open standards for vendors producing devices to assist first- responder communications.
'We want to see open standards that anyone can write to,' Walton said.

For network security standards for public safety data networks and video surveillance networks, Walton said both the new telecom office and Safecom should play a role.

The telecommunications industry is changing so rapidly that its boundaries now overlap with IT, broadcast and cable television, telephone and radio, said Dan Bart, senior vice president of the Telecommunications Industry Association. That is why it makes sense to combine cybersecurity and telecommunications within one position, he said.

'The new DHS position will coordinate with the other agencies,' Bart said. 'By putting the responsibility for communications and IT in one place, it will be helpful to defuse the turf wars.'

Both the preparedness undersecretary and the cyber/telecom position are political appointments. President Bush has not yet named anyone to those positions, which must be approved by the Senate. n

What's ahead for a cyber/telecom czar


Cyber/Telecom Office

National Communications System

Wireless Priority Service

Science & Technology Directorate

Safecom: A program to create standards for first-responder wireless communications

Office of the CIO

Wireless Management Office: Oversees wireless IT policy


  • Who will be nominated?
  • How much authority will the position have?
  • Will the post oversee projects such as Safecom and the Wireless Management Office?
  • How will the assistant secretary's duties interact with other telecom-related initiatives, such as enhanced 911 and cell phone initiatives at the Federal Communications Commission?
  • What role will the position play in setting security standards in areas where IT overlaps with telecom?

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer for GCN's sister publication, Washington Technology.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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