Obama administration to inherit cybersecurity challenges

There has been a 'fundamental ignorance' by the Bush administration on modern threats, says one expert

As President Bush prepares to leave office, the task of upgrading the security of federal information systems to deal with new cyberthreats continues to be very much a work in progress.

Several key federal cybersecurity initiatives launched during the Bush administration -- some in direct response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks -- are still years away. A few other initiatives are closer to completion but still don't do enough to protect federal networks and systems against increasingly sophisticated attacks from cybercriminals and nation states.

Fixing the situation will require the next administration to focus not just on completing the initiatives that are already under way, say security industry representatives. It also means increasing attention to issues such as collaboration between the public and private sectors, as well as a greater willingness to use the government's buying power to force change among vendors and service providers.

Crucial too is the need for the Obama administration to stop tying federal cybersecurity responses so closely to the broader post-September 11 war against terror, said John Pescatore, an analyst with Gartner. "The terrorist attacks of 2001 sent the Bush administration in the wrong direction," on the cybersecurity front, Pescatore said. There's been too much of tendency to view cyberthreats in the same light as physical terrorism threats and to respond to them in the same manner. In the process some of the more immediate threats to government data and networks have been somewhat overlooked, he said

Work in progress

Despite some of the challenges, progress has been made, says Karen Evans, who serves as federal CIO in her role as administrator of e-government and IT at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). She said there are several initiatives launched over the past few years that are already making, or will soon make a difference.

Top on Evans' list is Homeland Security Presidential Directive-12 (HSPD-12) of August 2004, under which federal agencies are required to issue new smart card identity credentials to all employees and contractors.

Agencies were supposed to have completed issuing the so-called Personal Identity Verification (PIV) cards by the end of last month but most are nowhere close to that goal and will require at least two more years to fully implement the mandate.

The initiative, a response to the September 11 attacks, will result in much better identification and authentication of all individuals with access to federal systems and buildings, Evans said. It will also enable better security otherwise -- such as providing a second form of authentication -- for online services and teleworking, she said.

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