Workforce issues complicate planning for cyberattacks

The Homeland Security Department has yet to develop a comprehensive plan for how companies would recover from cyberattacks disrupting the Internet, in part because the department has not been able to find and keep highly trained cybersecurity experts, according to a top information technology auditor at the Government Accountability Office.

In 2006, DHS developed a plan for how businesses and the government could recover from a cyberattack that disrupted the Internet. In that plan, DHS laid out the response that would be coordinated by the National Communications System, which would be responsible for the hardware and security infrastructure. The National Cyber Security Division would be responsible for maintaining the integrity of the software applications and information under attack.

Still, "there is no public-private plan for recovery and there is no date by which such a plan must exist," testified Gregory Wilshusen, director of information technology at GAO, at a Tuesday hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and National Archives.

Companies and individuals worldwide lose about $14 billion through the Internet because of malicious code attacks, but the Internet has yet to suffer a catastrophic failure, Wilshusen said.

Wilshusen referred to a 2006 study in which he concluded that several factors have hindered DHS from formulating a more complete plan: the lack of consensus on DHS' role if the Internet failed, what occurrence would trigger the department to get involved, a reluctance of private-sector companies to share information on any Internet disruptions, and "leadership and organizational uncertainties within DHS."

The agency "continues to be hampered by an inability to retain key cybersecurity officials," Wilshusen told the panel.

Gregory Garcia, assistant secretary for cybersecurity and communications, told the panel that, while "the most recent departures [from DHS] were for personal reasons," the nature of cybersecurity work makes it difficult to retain employees. "The work is high-intensity, fast-paced with long hours," he said. "We are acutely aware of the need for the best talent. We recruit the best people, and we try to reward them."

Other factors have made it difficult to prepare a comprehensive plan, including the seemingly endless connectivity of the Internet. It "is a critical [resource], but the widespread interconnectivity poses risks," Wilshusen said. "[The Internet] is vulnerable to terrorist threats, malicious attacks and natural disasters, among other things."

The changing nature of cyberattacks also makes it difficult to prepare a recovery plan, said Daniel Ross, chief information officer for the state of Missouri. Ross said he has seen hundreds of thousands of probes and low-level threats on Missouri networks. The majority of cyberattacks, he added, come from outside the United States, and are carried out by people who can avoid apprehension by law enforcement.

"These aren't teenage hackers in their parents' basement anymore," he said.

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