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Businesses slow-walk classified data-sharing efforts with feds

John P. Mello Jr. | June 17, 2013
Costs, skepticism dampen participation in Enhanced Cybersecurity Services initiative

Both government and business agree that sharing data is critical to fighting cyber threats to the nation's critical information and infrastructure resources.

One hang-up the private sector has found when sharing data with the U.S. government is that the information most useful to companies is classified, which means they don't have access to it.

As a result, you'd think a program like the Enhanced Cybersecurity Services (ECS) initiative — designed to improve the flow of classified information to businesses — would attract companies like iron shavings to a magnet. That hasn't happened.

The ECS, under another name, began in the U.S. Department of Defense and was moved earlier this year to the Department of Homeland Security after President Obama issued an executive order on information sharing between government and business. That order called for the development of a program for furnishing "classified cyber threat and technical information from the Government to eligible critical infrastructure companies or commercial service providers that offer security services to critical infrastructure."

"The administration said, this has worked well within the defense industrial sector, let's open it up to everybody we classify as critical infrastructure providers," Andrew Braunberg, research director for NSS Labs, said in an interview.

On its face, ECS sounded like a good idea to business because it made information sharing between government and the private sector a two-way street.

"A lot of the problem with information sharing is that it's one-way," Braunberg explained. "The government wants private sector data, but they don't always return good data the other way."

With ECS, good, actionable data — anything from virus signatures to malware alerts — would be flowing to companies without their having to return the favor.

However, since its transfer to DHS, ECS has failed to expand beyond the original 17 defense firms participating in it, although 54 companies expressed interest in the initiative. "None of them have signed on because once you start looking at the costs involved, it starts to look less like a free lunch," Braunberg said.

Part of those costs include obtaining security clearances for employees, something that goes with the territory of being a DOD contractor. "For the defense guys, this is a no brainer," Braunberg observed, "but once you get outside the defense base, you don't have guys on staff that have those clearances."

Security clearances can be a thorny problem for many high-tech companies. "You may have foreign nationals working for companies, protecting their networks, but that's a show-stopper for security clearance," John C. A. Bambenek, a handler at the SANS Internet Storm Center and president of Bambenek Consulting, said in an interview.

"As a matter of course, we don't grant security clearance to people who are not U.S. citizens," he said.


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