Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Cybersecurity. 

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Cybersecurity.  Getty Images / Sarah Silbiger-Pool

Contractors’ Reluctance to Work With the Pentagon on Cybersecurity Is Leaving Vulnerabilities, DOD Official Says

Just 1% of defense firms use DOD’s free network-security services, acting principal deputy CIO says.

Waiting for defense contractors to voluntarily talk about their cybersecurity efforts and problems is leaving gaps in security, a top defense cyber official said Wednesday. 

“There is a little bit of reluctance for a company to share anything with us. Like if we were to go in and take a look at their network and find out that it is abysmal. They wouldn't want that information to be leaked,” David McKeown, the Pentagon’s acting principal deputy CIO, said at Politico’s Defense Summit. “We're not prescriptive in nature, as to them coming to us and working with us. And that's the failing point right now: that it's all voluntary.”

Companies are supposed to adhere to a set of cybersecurity standards, NIST 800-171, but DOD assessments show most vendors fail, he said.  

McKeown listed various ways the Defense Department’s cyber experts can help its vendors, free of charge: on-site network assessments, sharing threat intelligence, shoring up email security, providing protective DNS, and more. But vanishingly few companies take advantage of the offerings: around 1 percent of DOD’s hundreds of thousands of contractors, he said.  

“Unfortunately, there's only one thing that is required of the vendors right now”: companies must tell the government within 72 hours of suffering a major cyber incident, McKeown said.

These mandatory disclosures yield tangible benefits, he said: “And then we share anonymized tactics, techniques, and procedures that we gather from those events with everyone else.”

McKeown spoke ahead of a federal rule for the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification program, which will require all defense contractors to go through a third-party verification process attesting to their cybersecurity and processes. The rule is expected early next year. He said the impending mandate was an opportunity for DOD to reach out to contractors.

But other parts of the federal government seem less concerned with the largely voluntary connections between companies and national-security agencies. On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told lawmakers that U.S. policy should continue to rely on voluntary incident reporting, particularly those coordinated with the department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Mayorkas lauded the agency’s performance to lawmakers Tuesday, saying the agency should focus more on international collaboration.  

It’s a public-policy challenge too, especially when the Defense Department is expected to defend the nation from a missile attack but not a cyberattack, said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Cybersecurity. 

“If you were to ask someone in the public, who's responsible for defending me against an incoming missile attack, well, everybody would say it's the Pentagon, it's the Department of Defense. But what about an incoming attack on a cyber system? Well, why wouldn't it be the Department of Defense? And yet the Department of Defense does not work within the United States, Homeland Security does.”

That arrangement means there’s coordination and information sharing between DOD and DHS, which connects with companies through voluntary arrangements. 

“But there still has to be a standard of acceptance in terms of what we consider to be appropriate and expected defensive capabilities built into everybody's systems by the businesses and the individuals themselves,” Rounds said. “That coordination, that ‘whole of country’ is critical, but that requires a national policy that understands it, and appropriately implements it. We've got a long way to go on that.”