Cybersecurity Defense: Biden Administration Executive Order a Great Start Towards a More Robust National Framework

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On May 12, President Biden issued a landmark Executive Order (“the Order”) aimed at improving the country’s cybersecurity threat defense. This Order is an attempt to create a “whole of government” response to increasingly frequent cybersecurity incidents that have wreaked havoc in the United States in recent months, affecting everything from energy supplies to healthcare systems to IT infrastructure systems.

In addition to becoming more frequent, recent cyberattacks have also become increasingly more sophisticated – and even somewhat professional. In response to these attacks, the Biden administration seeks to build a national security framework that aligns the Federal government with private sector businesses in order to “modernize our cyber defenses and enhance the nation’s ability to quickly and effectively respond to significant cybersecurity incidents.” Prior to this Order, there has been no unified system to report or respond to cybersecurity threats and breach incidents. Instead, there is currently a patchwork of state legislation and separate federal government agency protocols, all with differing reporting, notification, and response requirements.

In the first of this two-part blog series, I will broadly outline the details of this Order and what it will mean for private sector companies in the coming years. In the second installment, Rob Pike (CEO and Founder of Cyemptive Technologies) will provide guidance on how to set up your organization for compliance with the Order, as well as general best-practice tips for adopting a preemptive cybersecurity approach.

What is in President Biden’s Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity

There are nine main sections to the Order, which are summarized below.

Section 1: Policy

This section outlines the overall goal of the Order – namely that, with this Order, the Federal government is intent on making “bold changes and significant investments in order to defend the vital institutions that underpin the American way of life.” To do so, the Order states that the government must improve its efforts to “identify, deter, protect against, detect, and respond to” cybersecurity attacks. While this may sound like a purely governmental task, the Order specifically states that this defense will require partnership with the private sector.

Section 2: Removing Barriers to Sharing Threat Information

As noted above, prior to this Order, there was no unified system for sharing information regarding threats and data breaches. In fact, separate agency procurement contract terms may actually prevent private companies from sharing that type of information with federal agencies, including the FBI. This section of the Order responds to those challenges by requiring the government to update federal contract language with IT service providers (including cloud service providers) to require the collection and sharing of threat information with the appropriate government agencies. While the Order currently only speaks to federal subcontractors, it is expected that this information-sharing requirement will have a trickle-down effect across the private sector, with purely private companies falling in line to share threat information once federal subcontractors are required to do so.

Section 3: Modernizing Federal Government Cybersecurity

This section calls for the federal government to adopt security best practices – and is specifically aimed at adopting Zero Trust Architecture and pushing a move to secure cloud services, including “Software as a Service (SaaS), Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), and Platform as a Service (PaaS).” It requires that each government agency update plans to prioritize the adoption and use of cloud technology and develop a plan to implement Zero Trust Architecture, in part by incorporating the migrations steps outlined by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Section 4: Enhancing Software Supply Chain Security

This section deals with increasing the cybersecurity standards of software sold to the government. It specifically calls out the fact that the development of commercial software “often lacks transparency, sufficient focus on the ability of the software to resist attack, and adequate controls to prevent tampering by malicious actors.” It, therefore, calls for “more rigorous and predictable mechanisms for ensuring that products function securely.” Thus, this section calls for NIST to issue new security guidelines for software used by the government. These new guidelines will include encryption requirements, multi-factor and risk-based authentication requirements, vulnerability detection and disclosure programs, and trust relationship audits, among others.

Section 5: Establishing a Cyber Safety Review Board

This section establishes a federal Cyber Safety Review Board, which will convene following significant cyber incidents, providing recommendations to the Secretary of Homeland Security for improving cybersecurity and incident response practices. It will be made up of federal officials, as well as representatives from private sector entities.

Section 6: Standardizing the Federal Government’s Playbook for Responding to Cybersecurity Vulnerabilities and Incidents

This section again speaks to the patchwork of differing vulnerability and incident response procedures that currently exists across multiple federal agencies. The goal here is to create a standard set of operational procedures (or a playbook) for cybersecurity vulnerability and incident response activity. The playbook will have to incorporate all appropriate NIST standards, be used by all Federal Civilian Executive Branch (FCEB) Agencies, and spell out all phases of incident response.

Sections 7 and 8: Improving Detection, Investigation, and Remediations of Cybersecurity Vulnerabilities and Incidents on Federal Government Networks

These two sections focus on creating a unified approach to the detection, investigation, and remediation of cybersecurity vulnerabilities and incidents. Section 7 focuses on improving detection – mandating that all FCEB agencies deploy an “Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR)” initiative to support proactive detection of cybersecurity incidents and establishes a procedure for the implementation of threat hunting and detection, as well as inter-agency information sharing around threat detection. Section 8 is focused on improving the government’s investigative and remediation capabilities – namely, by establishing requirements for agencies and their IT service providers to collect, maintain, and share specified information from Federal Information System network logs.

Section 9: National Security Systems

This section requires the Secretary of Defense to adopt National Security System requirements that are at least equivalent to the requirements spelled out by the above sections in the Order.

Who Will This Impact?

As noted above, while the Executive Order is aimed at shoring up the federal government’s cybersecurity detection and response systems – its impacts will be felt throughout much of the private sector. That isn’t a bad thing! A patchwork cybersecurity system is clearly not the best way to respond to the increasingly sophisticated cybersecurity incidents currently threatening both the United States government and the private sector. Responding to these threats requires a robust, unified national cybersecurity system, which in turn requires updated and unified cybersecurity standards across both government agencies and private sector companies. This Executive Order is a great stepping stone towards that goal.

As far as timing for private sector impacts: the first impacts will be felt by software companies and other organizations that directly contract with the federal government, as there are direct requirements and implications for those entities spelled out within the Order. Many of those requirements come into play within 60 days to a year after the date of the Order, so there may be a quick turnaround to comply with any new standards for those organizations. Impacts are then expected to trickle down to other private sector organizations: as government subcontractors update policies and systems to comply with the Order, they will in turn require the companies that they do business with to comply with the new cybersecurity standards. In this way, the Order actually creates an opportunity for the federal government to create a cybersecurity floor above which most companies in the US will eventually have to comply.

Conclusion

Detecting and defending against cybersecurity threats is an increasingly difficult worldwide challenge – a challenge to which, currently, no perfect defense exists. However, with this Order, the United States is taking a step in the right direction by creating a more unified cybersecurity standard and network that will encourage better detection, investigation, and mitigation.

Stay tuned for the second installment of the blog series, where Rob Pike, CEO and Founder of Cyemptive Technologies, will provide guidance on how to set up your organization for compliance with the Executive Order, as well as general best-practice tips for adopting a preemptive cybersecurity approach.

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