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Assessing supply chain risk depends on good data, visibility, experts say

In the wake of the SolarWinds Orion attack, the White House instructed various executive departments to review the immediate and long-term supply chain risks to the agriculture, commerce, defense, energy, health and transportation industries.

Agencies, however, may have a tough time getting the information they need because of fundamental problems with the public- and private-sector's ability to assess their cybersecurity postures, according to analysts, former government officials and industry representatives.

"Most likely what will happen is we will find what we already know -- which is that these industries are all incredibly cyber vulnerable," said Kathryn Waldron, a cybersecurity expert at the R Street Institute. "They're all incredibly attractive targets for malicious actors and that probably their cybersecurity is not as good as they think."

"We don't really have a lot of great metrics or systems of measurement for cybersecurity, and so I think actually determining whether or not an industry has a good cybersecurity posture in general is not something that we're really able to do well as a country both from a government standpoint but also maybe from an industry standpoint," Waldron said.

Chris White, a former contractor for the National Security Agency and now an executive at BlueVoyant, said the reviews will likely conclude that most industries lack the data to confirm they have sufficient cybersecurity controls protecting their supply chain.

"There will be a big fat goose egg of, well, we were able to understand that we know there's a problem, we know there is risk, but we have no insight into how to measure that risk" or how to reduce it, he said.

White also argued the cybersecurity frameworks currently available are not up to par. In many cases, he said, they aim to establish "comprehensive, mutually-exclusive, perfect requirements," making them unwieldy and complicated to explain to the executives who will make decisions about how to invest in cybersecurity.

He did praise the National Institute of Standards and Technology, however, for crafting a framework understandable by everyone from low-level engineers to top executives.

"We all need to be reading from the same sheet of music," he said. "I think the call to action here is the need for a standard that solves the critical problem that NIST solved -- which was it can be universally interpreted by engineers at the low technical level, but … be boiled up into a very simple message surrounded by five concepts that any board anywhere can understand."

Another issue will be visibility, according to Blake Moore, formerly chief of staff for the Pentagon's CIO and now a vice president at Wickr. He described the various levels of a programmatic supply chain, starting at a developer creating a piece of software all the way to the integration of a system-of-systems.

"If you walk that chain back, it exponentially grows as far as the potential avenues of vulnerability as you move further down the supply chain," he said. "I think they're going to realize that visibility across the entire process needs to be clear, and right now we simply don't have that."

The reviews aside, a senior administration official told reporters March 12 the White House is already planning to implement a policy that would label some consumer devices as having sufficient cybersecurity standards as well as a grading system for software companies that sell products to government. The policies are expected to be released through an executive order in the coming weeks.

A longer version of this article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Justin Katz covers cybersecurity for FCW. Previously he covered the Navy and Marine Corps for Inside Defense, focusing on weapons, vehicle acquisition and congressional oversight of the Pentagon. Prior to reporting for Inside Defense, Katz covered community news in the Baltimore and Washington D.C. areas. Connect with him on Twitter at @JustinSKatz.


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