Former cybersecurity chief recounts successes during his tenure

Amit Yoran made waves when he resigned in September from his position as director of the Homeland Security Department's National Cyber Security Division, after little more than a year as the nation's top cybersecurity official. He came to government as a recognized expert from the cybersecurity firm Symantec.

Yoran said he plans to stay active in cybersecurity, and among other new projects he is now advising the private information sharing and analysis centers that some business sectors have set up to protect their computer networks.

Before working at Symantec, Yoran was the CEO of cybersecurity firm Riptech, which Symantec acquired.

He was interviewed by Technology Daily senior writer William New. Here are edited excerpts.

NJ: Why did you leave the Homeland Security Department at this time?

Yoran: My departure came about because we were able to complete a lot of goals and objectives in cybersecurity. These included creating a start-up within the department to help them deal with cybersecurity, recruiting highly skilled technical folks, and crafting a series of projects and initiatives to help the department get off on the right foot on cyber-issues. I think the objectives were largely achieved. Since the agreed-upon objectives were achieved, I thought it was time to move on.

NJ: Was there any truth to reports that you were unhappy with the situation at Homeland Security?

Yoran: Clearly, there are frustrations for any entrepreneurial spirit in any large bureaucracy. There were some challenges in that environment, but it was time well spent, and the mission is an important one.

NJ: Can you talk more about the accomplishments under your term?

Yoran: In addition to standing up the division and recruiting, we increased the number of bridges and interaction points with the private sector. Last year, the department was criticized for holding a summit that included just four industry groups. Now there are 30 partners representing all industrial economic sectors and government entities working together. For the first time, we tabulated [the Internet presence] of the federal government -- 5,700 different network blocks, some very small, with about 200 computers; some very large, with literally billions of addresses. For the first time, the federal government can begin to understand what its IT assets might be. We also assessed what the federal government's Internet vulnerability profile looks like. When completed, this will be the largest Internet vulnerability assessment ever. We also pulled together a cyber-incident response coordination group ... so should there be a cyber-incident of national significance, the federal government's pockets of cybersecurity capability and authority could be brought to bear in a coordinated fashion.

NJ: What remains for the department and the government to do on cybersecurity?

Yoran: While we have made some progress, a significant amount of work lies ahead. The department, in whatever form it chooses, needs to make a meaningful statement that it is committed to playing a significant leadership role in cybersecurity. What the next step for government will be in cybersecurity has yet to be defined and clearly articulated to the other parts of government and to the private-sector partners that are critical to the nation's homeland-security efforts and cyber-efforts.

NJ: Some experts have recommended that more attention be paid to cybersecurity of government systems. Do you agree with that?

Yoran: There is a dire need for government to radically reform how it looks at securing its own systems. There's a tremendous amount of paperwork involved. I would say the structured approach that government uses to secure its IT cyber-systems is largely, if not entirely, ineffective. Harnessing our effort on the security woes and deploying technical countermeasures and protections might actually solve more problems than the reams of paper we're currently producing.

NJ: Some experts and members of Congress have suggested that primary cybersecurity responsibility should be moved from Homeland Security, possibly to the Office of Management and Budget. Do you agree? Others have proposed that the cybersecurity position with the department be elevated to an assistant secretary level.

Yoran: I still think that for Homeland Security to be the sector-specific agency for cybersecurity is fundamentally the right approach. And the department needs to clearly define its programs, commitment, and long-term dedication and leadership to this important issue. It is important to the nation that, regardless of what level the position takes on, the department deals with cybersecurity in an aggressive and proactive fashion. Cybersecurity issues have to be truly integrated along with physical security into government grant programs, emergency preparedness and response programs, the Office for Domestic Preparedness, and state and local programs.

NJ: What kind of person do you recommend to follow you?

Yoran: This is really something that the administration and department need to decide. I believe a career bureaucrat who understands technology but is more adept at working with government systems for human resources, budget, and internal departmental politics is critical. Those issues seem to have great influence on cyber-efforts' ultimate likelihood of success or failure.