Originally published in Dark Reading on Aug. 13, 2019
The 10th anniversary of the US Cyber Command is an opportunity to prepare for unknowns in the rapidly changing cybersecurity landscape.
Ten years ago, GPS on phones was just becoming available. Self-driving cars were secretly making their way into traffic, and most people hadn’t even heard of 3D printing. This was when the US Cyber Command was created to direct and coordinate cyberspace planning and operations to defend and advance national interests with domestic and international partners.
It’s an understatement to say things have changed a lot since 2009, especially the cyber landscape. Though the majority of its operations are classified, it’s not hard to imagine the Cyber Command has also gone through major changes over the past decade.
Anniversaries are usually an opportunity to reflect on the past and think about the future, but that’s tricky to do when most of the Cyber Command’s activities are essentially kept from the public’s eye. And while history is known to repeat itself, cyberspace — the epitome of constant change — bucks that trend. This secrecy, conflated with the dynamic cyber landscape, makes it difficult to accurately predict what the next decade might bring for the Cyber Command and technology in general. (Seriously, who could’ve foreseen that a social media platform conceived by a broken-hearted student in a college dorm room would end up being a tool for skewing elections of a world superpower?)
After a recent (and rare) briefing at its new Joint Operations Center, a modicum of visibility emerged regarding the maturing Cyber Command’s new “defend forward” operating philosophy. With publicly announced plans to defend the 2020 elections from foreign interference, along with authorization to operate against overseas adversaries, it seems likely that the Cyber Command is stepping up its cyber warfare game, as it should. But will investment in its own technology infrastructure be commensurate with risks it faces?
This 10-year milestone is exactly the right time to contemplate what may be said about the Cyber Command in 2029, and sentiment will hinge on technology decisions it makes in the near term. A decade from now, we’ll look back again across the entire cyber landscape to assess the efficacy of the command and many other federal agencies, especially as multicloud complexity increases and threats become increasingly hard to thwart.
There are clues that point to what the future holds, and at least one thing comes into focus pretty clearly right now: risky behavior taking place in federal agencies across the board is a huge homegrown threat that the Cyber Command (and anyone conducting business online) cannot ignore.
A recent report revealed that digital transformation efforts of federal agencies are putting sensitive government data — your data — at risk. Nearly 70% of respondents in the report admit they’re not encrypting the data they’re supposed to be protecting. Even as agencies struggle with cloud complexity, the race for digitally transformative technologies is literally pushing security aside. And despite increases in data breaches and regulatory compliance, proper investment in data protection is low for agencies. Without a sea change, 2029 won’t mark a happy anniversary.
Cyber Command’s work over the next 10 years will require an increasing level of interoperability of data and data-handling systems between federal agencies — something they’ve acknowledged. But without the most robust encryption security in place, data fusion that must take place between multiple federal agencies will continue to be risky and potentially expose secrets to adversaries who are also building up their own cyber forces, for good or evil.
Cyber Command acknowledges it must focus on persistent innovation and rapid change. During opening remarks at a Cyber Subcommittee Hearing last year to review Department of Defense operational readiness, Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and chairman of the Cybersecurity Subcommittee, said cyber readiness issues revolve around several problems including “…the shortage of skilled, cyber-capable personnel” and concerns about being properly equipped with the right tools to respond to operational needs.
At a minimum, these pronouncements show Cyber Command recognizes the clear and present danger of not being prepared in the cyber theater of war. If 60% of federal respondents in the same report say they’ve been breached (with 35% in the past year alone), and only 30% are properly encrypting data, the wake-up call should be loud and clear: Investment in modern data solutions for modern architectures is critical to national and global security.
Data security professionals, federal or otherwise, face a ticking time bomb and must be constantly vigilant. Everyone — from the intern to the CEO — has data worth stealing and worth protecting. Without support and proper investment, the institutions they protect will remain at risk.