Agency Assessment Comes as President Signs Executive Order Increasing Cyber Sharing with the Private Sector

Late last year, this post speculated whether 2015 would become “the Year of Cybersecurity.” Though 2015 is still young, it certainly feels like the prediction was accurate given the continued attention that cybersecurity is receiving from the White House, Congress, and federal agencies like the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”). The GAO recently issued a new report ranking threats related to cybersecurity and privacy among the high risk areas for the federal government and the nation’s critical infrastructure.

On February 11, the GAO published its High Risk List, a biennial report released at the start of each new Congress in which the GAO details the program areas, government practices and particular federal agencies that are at high risk due to their susceptibility to fraud, waste, abuse or mismanagement.

The cybersecurity of both the federal government and critical private infrastructure has been on the GAO’s High Risk List since 2003, but the GAO expanded the designation for the first time this year to include the privacy of personally identifiable information (“PII”) held by the government and private sector. Privacy’s addition to the High Risk List was due in part to the growth in consumer data collection, the ballooning number of reported data breaches involving PII in the government and private sectors, and the federal government’s own struggles in safeguarding individual’s sensitive information.

Cybersecurity has been on the High Risk List since 1997, but the GAO expanded the designation to include the privacy of personally identifiable information for the first time this year.

While the GAO added privacy protection to the High Risk List, the report praised the work of the Executive branch and the Congress in the preceding years to address the GAO’s cybersecurity concerns. In particular, the report lauded the commitment of the White House and other federal agencies to improving cybersecurity, such as the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to promote the use of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s cybersecurity framework in the private sector. The GAO also applauded the passage of five cybersecurity-related bills by Congress late last year: the Federal Information Security Modernization Act of 2014, the Cybersecurity Workforce Assessment Act, the Homeland Security Workforce Assessment Act, the National Cybersecurity Protection Act of 2014, and the Cybersecurity Enhancement Act of 2014.

 “The administration needs to prepare an overarching cybersecurity strategy that includes all desirable characteristics of a national strategy. . . .”

The GAO noted that much work remains to be done in order to confront the persistent and growing issues regarding the nation’s cybersecurity capabilities. The GAO stated that “the administration needs to prepare an overarching cybersecurity strategy that includes all desirable characteristics of a national strategy.” Such a strategy should include, among other things: performance measures and milestones; a roadmap for advancements in cybersecurity challenge areas; and improvements in Executive branch agencies’ cyber analytical and technical capabilities. Importantly, the GAO also advised the administration to bolster its partnerships with the private sector to better strengthen the nation’s cyber critical infrastructure, stating that “Federal stakeholders . . . need to enhance their coordination and monitoring efforts with private sector entities to improve the cybersecurity of critical infrastructure, including the adoption or use of a cybersecurity framework.”

The administration needs to bolster its partnerships with the private sector to better strengthen that nation’s cyber critical infrastructures.

Shortly after the High Risk List’s release, President Barack Obama issued an Executive Order to promote the rapid sharing of cybersecurity threat information between the public and private sectors. The President’s Executive Order calls upon the DHS Secretary to “strongly encourage” development of Information Sharing and Analysis Organizations (ISAOs) to act as hubs for sharing cybersecurity information and collaborating both within the private sector and between the private sector and the federal government.

The Executive Order also seeks to streamline the ability of the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center to establish information sharing agreements with ISAOs. Perhaps most crucially, the Executive Order aims to increase the ability for private sector entities to gain access to relevant classified material dealing with cybersecurity threats in order to defend their systems while also calling for private sector ISAOs to implement voluntary privacy protection standards.

It is not clear if the White House was heeding the High Risk List’s call to increase public-private partnerships or it simply had the same idea at the same time; however, the President’s Executive Order strives to answer some of the GAO’s concerns while also “pav[ing] the way for new legislation” in the cybersecurity arena. Whether cybersecurity and privacy will remain atop the GAO’s High Risk List will depend upon how well the federal government works with the private sector over the coming years to stem the tide of cyber threats that confront the country.