FAQ: White House Executive Order on Cyber Security

As a follow-up to yesterday’s article that provided a summary of the recent Executive Order, NovaBlogger Jack “@sintixerr” Whitsitt, a local expert on national critical infrastructure protection issues, published this article last weekend. With his permission we are cross-posting it here. This post is the second in a series of two that answers some of the questions Jack has been getting re the Executive Order Obama issued last week.


Over the past week, I’ve had a number of questions from industry, people at various cybersecurity conferences, friends, and … well … my job … ask me about my opinion on the executive order. Here are some interpretations in the form of a FAQ. It’s worth mentioning that, although I am familiar with the culture, language, and *some* small number of the actual background discussions here, I have no ownership nor formal role in most of it. Just some wacky alien putting some other wacky aliens’ behavior in terms more earth-like. If I use definitives like “is” or “will” please read an implied “my best educated guess” into them.

1. What is the Executive Order and why was it issued?

This is a two prong answer. First, obviously it was absolutely a political goad to congress to write legislation and to poke at the Republicans. However, more importantly, it is also potentially a very valuable order that was seriously thought through and that will be used.

Think of it like a mother (the White House) telling kids (DHS, SSA’s) to “clean up the house”.  Based on existing house rules (overarching critical infrastructure directives/laws), she expects it will be done and goes off to handle other things.She comes back to find out that the kids of swept once or twice then went on to xbox, pushed stuff under the bed, or made more of a mess of the toy box trying to clean it than it was before.

Mom comes back and says “Ok, I left you to your own devices, here are the specific ways – again within the larger context of house rules – you are going to clean up. In the case of cyber security, the White House has said: You – DHS and SSAs and everyone else – are going to remove barriers to information sharing, work with our customers (industry) to build some coherent approach to solving the problem to our satisfaction  – some standard way of organizing the whole mess, and you’re each (especially you SSA’s!) are going to create explicit privacy and civil rights protections or else you fail.

2. What are the main thrusts of the Order?

1) Improve Information Sharing

2) Use business-function driven risk analysis to determine priorities

3) Create a framework of standards for reducing risks from cyber security issues to critical infrastructure

4) Engage industry to the greatest extent possible, and assure privacy and civil liberties are embedded in the entire process.

Whether any of this will be successful or remain uncorrupted is a different question.

3. Could this in any way infringe on individual freedoms if misinterpreted?

The short answer is “not any more than before”. DHS messaging is that privacy and liberty assurance is one of the three primary focuses of the EO. The Executive Order relies on existing government privacy and civil liberties mechanisms and embeds them throughout the order. Whether or not you think those mechanisms were sufficient is one question, but the EO doesn’t make them worse or better.

4. What will the “Framework” described be?

Based on comments from NIST: The framework will include whatever will achieve effective cyber: processes, technologies, architectures, concepts, specifications, etc.  It is intended to be layered and include broad principles, common practices, and sector specific realities.

The role of NIST is to support the industry development of the framework. The government will depend on the actions of the private sector after sharing, up front, performance goals. NIST is being engaged because it has experience gathering lots and lots of input, but this will NOT be a typical NIST thing.

The aim of the framework approach is to enhance adaptability, with cost and impact to economics of business being an integrated explicit part of the conversation.

Additional benefit is that, by increasing interoperability of requirements, concepts, expectations, etc, baseline security can be driven to market/products (my comment: which has been a vendor/industry complaint often voiced)

Moreover, a goal of the EO – both in context of information sharing and the framework – is harmonization of efforts (this was repeated extensively and resonated with my experience in the dialogue) – particularly nby the federal government (which, again, has been a substantial private industry complaint).

5. Standards? What is meant by standards? That sounds scary!

Not as much as you’d think. Based on comments from NIST: Generally, common basis of comparison…some are performance…but some are norms to promote collective collaborative action. These latter are developed by industry and what the EO is referring to. In other words, the Framework of Standards is meant less to be comparative and more to allow everyone and everything to be working together.  (Jack’s note: I’ve said for years there should be a Chinese menu of options selectable by environment and risk, this looks like it might be going down that path).

6. What are some simple things to know ahead of time that I might not already?

There are laws, mandates, and programs on the books now and have been for years. This includes strategic planning, incident response, information sharing, and engagement. The sector specific agencies’ jobs(SSA) are to take broad cybersecurity capabilities within DHS and apply them in sector (industry) specific ways. All major players in industry have been actively engaged in the dialogue so far.  There have been certain cultural, process, political, perception, legal, and conceptual barriers to progress despite existing work and engagement.  The Executive Order attempts to rectify these barriers while keeping in tact most of the fundamental structures already in place.

7. How does the new PDD relate to the Executive Order? 

The PDD is an update/replacement to HSPD-7. These documents are not cyber specific, but are the policy  context under most critical infrastructure protection activities that the federal government engages in (including cyber security) are driven by. The old HSPD-7 and the National Infrastructure Protection Plan from DHS which supports it have been around for years and understanding them is necessary to understand a lot of the intent behind the executive order.

8. How does CISPA relate to this?

An executive order cannot change already legislative assigned federal responsibilities, so everything the EO directs occurs under existing mandates and laws. Further, the EO addresses information sharing AND getting the government’s overall act together in cyber security.  CISPA, on the other hand, is aimed (for better or worse, this post isn’t for my opinions on it) on removing legal barriers to information sharing and addressing specifically problems associated with industry cybersecurity needing to intersect with the intelligence community.

9. What guarantee do we have to transparency in any of this?

Workshops kick off in April. NIST has questions to industry on its website and will be reaching out further (more proactively than “on the website”) in the near future. If you read my earlier NIST post, you’ll see transparency and participation are core, not tangential, tenets here and are one of the things that will (or is intended to at least) distinguish this from past efforts. Further, if you have been on any of the DHS calls with industry, every single conversation revolves around getting more and better industry involvement. They are very serious about it. Finally, in my own work with some of this (which is tangentially related), transparency and engagement have been priorities I’ve seen.

10. Indeed it’s written with the basis that Government will continue to be the determining data librarian for cyber threats.

Over and over and over industry tells gov “we need better threat info.” Most of EO not dealing with the framework is written to that end – it primarily deals with pushing data TO the private sector because they have requested it. However, post-order messaging has (correctly) been: Look, we don’t have a classified pot of information at the end of the rainbow that’s going to save the day. Industry, you guys know about yourselves way more than we do – or you should.  If you don’t share, that’s fine, but we can’t help you unless you help us to do it.

I don’t like the disproportionate focus on Information Sharing. I think it’s a waste of time, but we collectively have created this stupid beast. I might be a red herring, but it’s our collective red herring.This deserves a longer treatment than a couple of sentences, so come see me talk about it at SOURCE Boston.

11. Why is the Cyber EO so obtuse? And while the PPD adds context – it’s clear that we require more (and more) clarity

Much of the obtuseness is because a) some is to be defined later by b) federal agencies who will get very clear direction from those in the WH charged with implementing the EO within the context of c) existing language on the books and in response to d) specific beefs from industry and dialogue failures in the past. What most people lack is the appropriate context from which to interpret it, since most people are not critical infrastructure owners and operators or feds who have been engaged in the discussion. Much of the insight Im trying to provide here isn’t direct experience with the EO iteself, but the cultural language which has developed in the civilian space on the topic of critical infrastructure protection over the past several years. It’s not understood well outside of Washington, but those it is speaking to understand it. This is a huge problem and one I’ll try to address in Boston.

12. Is this more of the government telling private sector they’re coming?

Gov’t is already there: HSPD-7, NIPP, SSA’s, CIPAC, CSCSWG, CNCI, NCCIC, foobar. Regulatory capability already there: TSA, DOE(NERC CIP), etc. This EO speaks to and sorts out this *existing* stuff in one prong and tries to sort out information sharing barriers in another prong (barriers which, right or wrong – mostly wrong – industry has cited over and over and over as the reason their cyber sucks).

13. Why do we have any faith that Government has the agility and consistency to get it right this time?

We don’t, but, the way the framework components are laid out, we have an interesting opportunity to force it to work by the order’s focus on creating real consensus business-driven requirements. In particular, I believe cyber security is a quality assurance problem over unbounded time driven from business priorities and is almost 100% a human-centric problem.  There might be space here for that conceptual shift to occur.  More on that later, possibly in Boston.

14. Should the Cyber EO have been so broad? Look at the “Designated Critical Infrastructure Sectors and Sector-Specific Agencies” list in the PPD.

Don’t forget that the PPD is based on years old definitions and, more importantly, is an all-hazards list primarily focused on physical attacks. In large enough scale, most things are critical in the terms of the broader discussion.

The trick is, for cyber, determining what within those spaces is critical. It’s a different functional discussion – as this is all laid out – than which sectors are critical. That’s handled in a process – a version of which I’ve been facilitating at a sector level for the past year – that is designed to base decisions on business driven threat scenarios.  It’s not perfect, but it’s a huge improvement from past methodologies.

15. If and only if (IFF) the Cyber EO was really meant to get action to answer these questions – then it should not have been issued so broadly, so politically charged, and otherwise tied to SOTU the way it was.

Agree. It’s over-politicized – but that gets into questions of its effectiveness and clarity in the current political and cultural environment, and that’s out of scope here.

16. Why not leverage the bodies of work existing up-front?

Because the process of engagement in finding and applying those existing bodies of work is the key element of this part of the EO, not the outcomes themselves. It’s an attempt to build in continuous flexibility and applicability in changing environments and compared to differing and dynamic priorities. Think “it’s not the destination but the journey” here and add on “and the requirement to iterate through multiple journeys as a lifestyle.” The mechanism NIST and the collective gov builds to continuously engage industry in the development and adaptation of the framework are where our real opportunities to make this valuable come in – but we need to work together coherently. More in this in Boston.

Also, check out my earlier post on NIST clarifications. They are very pertinent.

17. What makes this a compelling DHS issue instead of economic development, science, or other component of Government?

Because the EO can only really address already existing legislatively assigned authorities. This EO is a goad for further legislation, and that might change the agency assigned responsibilities. That said, I actually agree this should be a DHS issue – no other agency has the type of broader mission required to effectively coordinate cybersecurity in the broad terms it requires – NSA would be one of the worst choices, since their core mandates are, in many cases, only of use in terms of focused support. Think correlation with physical and geographically dispersed response and coordination. The FBI, similarly, would be a terrible choice since their mandate is “prosecute and convict.”

18. What about regulation of industry?

There are a number of agencies who *already have* regulatory authority over private sector critical cyber infrastructure – some have used it, some haven’t. The EO asks that they use the new processes in the EO to reevaluate whether they should regulate and how if they don’t now and the effectiveness of any regulation if it’s already in place. Every two years, the government is required to check with industry to make sure any regulation is a) effective and b) not too burdensome. In my opinion (based on work with some of the processes which will be used), this is much less likely to result in additional regulation than is suspected. (This is because the processes attempt to be more empirical and data-informed than the more speculative and subjective attempts in the past.)

19. Why haven’t I heard about any of this and why does it not resonate with me?

So much of this has been driven by lobbyists and industry associations … unfortunately in many cases … but almost impossible to get substantive input from more fair representation. The reasoning behind this is something I’ll cover in Boston and it’s something we need to culturally change together – and we can.

Cross-posted from Jack Whitsitt: Art and Security in Washington, DC.


Any other questions you might have for Jack? Let us know in the comments below. Today’s post pic is from PriceFoundation.org. See ya!

7 comments for “FAQ: White House Executive Order on Cyber Security

  1. February 21, 2013 at 11:41 am

    #NoVABloggers FAQ: White House Executive Order on Cyber Security http://t.co/qosWUO6LUQ

  2. February 21, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    FAQ: White House Executive Order on Cyber Security: As a follow-up to yesterday’s article that provided a summ… http://t.co/F7DC07FBDI

  3. February 21, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    FAQ: White House Executive Order on Cyber Security http://t.co/Mrbu2PYpAH

  4. February 21, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    apologies – credit to @sintixerr FAQ: WhiteHouse ExecutiveOrder on #Cybersecurity http://t.co/ou1nIvT1ru >Interesting blog post @novainfosec

  5. February 21, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    FAQ: White House Executive Order on Cyber Security | https://t.co/eJ4dTFks2f #infosec #privacy #natsec #hackers #technology #cyberwar

  6. February 22, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    See our post for FAQ on Cybersecurity Executive Order http://t.co/8ksel2X7v9

  7. February 23, 2013 at 9:03 am

    See our post for FAQ on Cybersecurity Executive Order http://t.co/3Mp3yA9v0S

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