FEMA: Cybersecurity ranks lowest among critical protections

Despite a heightened emphasis on protection of the nation’s information infrastructure, cybersecurity ranks dead last among 31 critical areas of readiness, according to a recent report from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“The Nation is highly reliant upon interdependent cyber systems, yet stakeholders have an incomplete understanding of cyber risk and inconsistent public and private participation in cybersecurity partnerships,” FEMA concluded in the latest National Preparedness Report.

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Most stakeholders with responsibility for critical infrastructure protection, primarily in the private sector and at the state and local government level, now identify cybersecurity as a priority issue, the report says. But federal funding has not followed this need. Little if any federal preparedness assistance grants have been earmarked specifically for cybersecurity programs.

The National Preparedness Report is an annual assessment of the nation’s readiness to respond to a full range of disasters, both natural and man-made. It includes data gathered from self-assessments for 2011 by all 56 states and territories in their levels of preparedness in 31 core capabilities.

The highest areas of readiness are public health and medical services, with 78 percent of states reporting they are where they want to be, followed by operational coordination (73 percent), with on-scene security and protection and operational communications coming in at 72 percent each.

At the bottom of the list are cybersecurity at 42 percent,  housing (44 percent), natural and cultural resources (47 percent) and economic recovery (50 percent).

Cybersecurity was included as a core competency for the first time in this year’s assessment. It is defined as the ability to “protect against damage to, the unauthorized use of, and/or the exploitation of (and, if needed, the restoration of) electronic communications systems and services (and the information contained therein).”

The report notes that the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team, which acts as a central clearinghouse for reports of malicious activity, shows a 650-percent increase in the number of incidents reported by federal agencies over a five-year period, from 5,503 in fiscal 2006, to 41,776 in 2010. Agencies are required to report incidents to US-CERT, but the private sector also reports massive upswing in compromises and incidents. This problem probably is underreported, however, since FEMA found that only 50 percent of owners and operators at high-priority facilities report cyber incidents to outside parties.

At the federal level, FEMA reported a number of efforts to advance cybersecurity within government as well as in the private sector. The Homeland Security and Defense departments are expanding the Defense Industrial Base pilot with the Joint Cybersecurity Services Pilot, to enable sharing of information between government and companies while protecting sensitive DOD information and private intellectual property.

The National Cybersecurity Protection System was monitoring intrusions for 37 of 116 federal agencies (32 percent) by the end of fiscal 2011, beating its target of 28 percent. DHS also operates the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, which coordinates cyber and communications warning information across federal, state, and local governments. The Cybersecurity Information Sharing and Collaboration Program enables information sharing and cooperation with critical infrastructure owners and operators.

“Despite progress achieved through these efforts . . . cyber capabilities are lagging at the state level,” the report concludes. “Results indicated that cybersecurity was the single core capability where states had made the least amount of overall progress.”

One of the reasons that cybersecurity lags might be that to date the nation has not suffered a catastrophic incident. The assessment found that governments respond to crises and that improvements have been made in problems identified following disasters such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As a result of these events weaknesses were identified and addressed in multi-agency coordination, emergency planning, information sharing and interoperable communications.

An unrelated survey of federal IT executives found that government cybersecurity suffers from inconsistent management and lacks maturity.

One federal CIO quoted in the 22nd annual survey of Federal CIOs from TechAmerica that “the existing security framework is so inconsistently applied, and quality is all over the place.”

Forty CIOs, information resources management officials and congressional oversight committee staff members were interviewed for the survey, and cybersecurity ranked as the primary concern. Suggestions offered for improvement included:

· More internal audits of security.

· More network operations security centers, armed with relevant data on current threats and using strong policies and best practices.

· Better official processes for sharing threat information to reduce the use of back-channel communications.

· Clearly determine who within an agency “owns” authority for security. CIOs do not control physical security and background checks that mitigate internal cybersecurity risks.

· Plan for and build cybersecurity into new programs and systems.

· Develop sound cybersecurity metrics. US-CERT has issued guidance on such metrics.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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