Cybersecurity Needs Its Own CDC

How to understand your data
Aug. 28 2014 3:30 PM

Unreadiness Team

Let’s start treating cybersecurity like we treat public health.

Illustration by Ellie Skrzat.

Illustration by Ellie Skrzat

By most counts, there are 45 government organizations managing dozens of cybersecurity initiatives right now in the U.S. Many of those initiatives impact you and your personal data directly. One of those initiatives, the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team, or US-CERT, partners with private sector infrastructure owners and operators, as well as universities and other government agencies, to make sure America’s corner of cyberspace is protected.

US-CERT posts alerts on its site about high-level security threats, but they’re bits of information—like, say, a Google Chrome security update—that get published first on other websites. They’re not surfacing important cyberthreats as much as they are reporting what companies are already telling the public. Elsewhere on the site, resources intended to protect everyday people from persistent cyberthreats haven’t been updated since February 2013.

I realize the average person isn’t buying a new iPhone and immediately clicking over to US-CERT to learn about the latest mobile malware. The average person probably doesn’t even realize that such a government website exists. US-CERT describes itself as “collaborative, agile, and responsive in a dynamic and complex environment.” The problem is that those adjectives describe hackers, not our government agencies. Although US-CERT doesn’t exist simply to inform the public about hacker threats, the way information is relayed on its website is emblematic of a large organizational challenge that’s becoming more and more difficult to manage.

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Cybersecurity is incredibly complicated, and the programs and tools through which hackers operate are always evolving. To complicate things, hacking isn’t linear. Hackers can infiltrate your home computer and hold your personal photos for ransom. They can infect the thumb drive you share with your co-workers. They can scrape credit card data from online retailers. They can send you fake tax returns. They can compromise our emergency alert systems.

Given the growing threats to our personal, business, and government data, it seems as though the government should establish a central office whose sole purpose is to coordinate cybersecurity protocols. That agency should be led by experienced white-hat hackers and computer scientists who also have ample experience in administration and management.

In a sense, managing our nation’s tech health is similar to managing the personal health and safety of American citizens, and we already have a dedicated readiness agency for that: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It conducts research, deploys emergency response units, coordinates as needed with other agencies, and informs the public during critical disease outbreaks. We’ve seen the CDC in action during the most recent Ebola crisis; the CDC has been a primary source for journalists covering the outbreak, and it has communicated quarantine orders with other health agencies. Individual government units such as the Border Patrol don’t have their own independent teams dedicated to Ebola—instead, the Border Patrol follows a standard protocol, coordinating with local health officials, who then coordinate with the CDC.

When it comes to cybersecurity, there is no comparable central agency or standard protocol. I’m certainly not minimizing the severity of an infectious outbreak like Ebola, but I also wouldn’t minimize the threat of hackers infiltrating the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers databases. Data breaches that involve public infrastructure could cause harm to human life, too, and potentially on just as large a scale.

The CDC’s managers are physicians and scientists with extensive hands-on medical and public health administration experience. Their current director investigated drug-resistant tuberculosis and the H1N1 virus. The CDC’s chief operating officer, whose primary responsibilities are financial and organizational operations, also has an advanced degree in public health. But technology leaders in government aren’t expected to have commensurate expertise. Sure, there are some Department of Homeland Security officials with advanced technical skills. But the White House Cybersecurity Coordinator has no formal training in math and computer science. The acting director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology—the office that just handed down the White House’s official cybersecurity framework for protecting critical infrastructure—has a Ph.D. in chemistry.

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