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The policy changes the US government has initiated to overhaul its cybersecurity

While India still awaits its National Cybersecurity Policy, the United States President on Wednesday issued an executive order that overhauls its cybersecurity policy. “Cybersecurity incidents like SolarWinds, Microsoft Exchange, and now the Colonial Pipeline incident are a sobering reminder that both U.S. public- and private-sector entities are very vulnerable to constant, sophisticated, and malicious attack — from nation-state adversaries to run-of-the-mill criminals,” a senior administration official said in a press call.

The order focuses on the following policy key changes:

Improving threat information sharing between government and the private sector

The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) and the Defense FAR Supplement contracts will be reviewed and modified by the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to remove contractual obligations that deter service providers from sharing information into cyber threats.

Common cybersecurity contractual requirements across agencies will be standardised, while agency-specific requirements will be reviewed by the Secretary of Homeland Security in consultation with the Secretary of Defense, the Director of OMB, and the Administrator of General Services and accommodated.

The contract will be modified to instruct:

  • service providers to collect and preserve data related to cybersecurity events
  • service providers to share such data with the agency that has contracted it or with any other appropriate agency specified by the Director of OMB
  • service providers collaborate with federal cybersecurity or investigative agencies in their investigations of cybersecurity incidents on Federal Information Systems
  • service providers share cyber threat and incident information with agencies

Furthermore, the contract will specify:

  • the nature of cyber incidents that require reporting
  • the types of information regarding cyber incidents that require reporting
  • appropriate protections for privacy and civil liberties
  • the time periods within which contractors must report cyber incidents based on a graduated scale of severity, with reporting on the most severe cyber incidents not to exceed 3 days after initial detection
  • reporting requirements for National Security Systems
  • the type of contractors to be covered by the proposed contract language

Modernisation: adopting cloud and FedRAMP 

1. Adopting cloud technology based on zero trust architecture: The head of each agency is required to prioritize resources for the adoption of cloud technology, develop a plan to implement Zero Trust Architecture, and report these plans to the Director of OMB and the Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor (APNSA) within 60 days. To facilitate this:

  • Security principles governing Cloud Service Providers (CSPs) will be developed by the Secretary of Homeland Security in consultation with the Administrator of General Services.
  • Current cybersecurity programs will be modernized by CISA to be fully functional with cloud-computing environments.
  • A Federal cloud-security strategy will be developed by the Director of OMB, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Administrator of General Services, and guidance to agencies will be provided accordingly.
  • A cloud-security technical reference architecture documentation will be developed and issued by the Secretary of Homeland Security in consultation with the Director of OMB and the Administrator of General Services illustrating recommended approaches to cloud migration and data protection for agency data collection and reporting to the federal civilian executive branch (FCEB) agencies.
  • A cloud-service governance framework that identifies a range of services and protections available to agencies based on incident severity will be developed and issued by the Secretary of Homeland Security.
  • Types and sensitivity of an agency’s unclassified data will be evaluated by FCEB agencies, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, and such data will be submitted to the Secretary of Homeland Security and to the Director of OMB.
  • A framework to collaborate on cybersecurity and incident response activities related to FCEB cloud technology will be established by the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Attorney General, the Director of the FBI, and the Administrator of General Services.
  • Multi-factor authentication and encryption for data at rest and in transit will be mandatory for all agencies within 180 days from the date of the order.

2. Modernising Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP): The Administrator of General Services, in consultation with the Director of OMB and the heads of other agencies, will begin modernizing Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) by:

  • establishing a training program to ensure agencies are effectively trained and equipped to manage FedRAMP requests
  • improving communication with CSPs through automation and standardization of messages at each stage of authorization
  • incorporating automation throughout the lifecycle of FedRAMP
  • digitizing and streamlining documentation that vendors are required to complete
  • identifying relevant compliance frameworks and allowing those frameworks to be used as a substitute for the relevant portion of the authorization process

Enhancing software supply chain security

1. Establishing baseline security standards for the development of software sold to the government: The Secretary of Commerce will seek input from various stakeholders to identify existing or develop new standards, tools, and best practices for evaluating software security.

Guidelines that include standards, procedures, or criteria will be issued by the Secretary of Commerce regarding:

  • secure software development environments
  • generating and providing artefacts that demonstrate conformance to the processes mentioned in this order
  • employing automated tools to maintain trusted source code supply chains
  • employing automated tools that check for known and potential vulnerabilities and remediate them
  • maintaining accurate and up-to-date data of software code or component and controls on internal and third-party software components
  • providing a purchaser a Software Bill of Materials (SBOM) for each product directly or by publishing it on a public website
  • participating in a vulnerability disclosure program
  • attesting to conformity with secure software development practices
  • ensuring and attesting to the integrity and provenance of open source software used in any product
  • minimum standards for vendors’ testing of their software source code.

2. Defining critical software:

A definition of the term “critical software”  will be published by the Secretary of Commerce in consultation with the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Director of OMB, and the Director of National Intelligence.

A list of categories of software that meet the definition of critical software will also be made available

Guidance outlining security measures for critical software will also be published. Within 30 days from then, the Director of OMB will take appropriate steps to require that agencies comply with the guidance and only use software that meets the specified requirements.

3. Piloting program to provide security ratings to software

Pilot programs, based on existing consumer product labelling programs, to educate the public on the security capabilities of Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices will be initiated by the Secretary of Commerce in coordination with representatives from other relevant agencies. It will also find ways to incentivize manufacturers to participate in these programs.

IoT cybersecurity criteria, as well as secure software development processes for a consumer labelling program, will be identified by the government. The criteria will reflect increasingly comprehensive levels of testing and assessment that a product may have undergone, and will be compatible with existing labelling schemes that manufacturers use to inform consumers about the security of their products.

A recommended label or a tiered software security rating system will be developed by the Director of NIST after examine all relevant information, labelling, and incentive programs.

Lessons from cyber incidents: establishing a Cybersecurity Safety Review Board

A Cyber Safety Review Board will be established by the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Attorney General, and will be convened following a significant cyber incident affecting FCEB Information Systems or non-Federal systems to review and assess the incident.

Any advice, information, or recommendations that the Board suggests for improving cybersecurity following the assessment of an incident will be submitted to the President through the APNSA  by the Secretary of Homeland Security. The federal government will take steps to implement them as appropriate.

The Board will include members from the government as well as the private sector. The Chair and Deputy Chair will be appointed biennially and will include one from each group. The Board will comprise representatives of the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, CISA, the NSA, and the FBI, as well as representatives from appropriate private-sector cybersecurity or software suppliers as determined by the Secretary of Homeland Security.

Standardizing response to cybersecurity incidents

A standard set of operational procedures (playbook) will be developed by the Secretary of Homeland Security in coordination with the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, and the Director of National Intelligence, to be used in planning. Current incident response procedures vary across agencies, hindering the ability of agencies to analyze vulnerabilities and incidents more comprehensively across agencies.

  • The playbook will incorporate all appropriate NIST standards, be used by FCEB Agencies, and articulate progress and completion through all phases of the response to an incident.
  • It will define key terms and use such terms consistently with any statutory definitions of those terms.
  • Agency use of the playbook will be dictated by the Director of OMB and the Director of CISA shall review and update the playbook annually. Agencies that wish to deviate from the playbook may use such procedures only after consulting with the Director of OMB and after demonstrating that their procedures meet or exceed the standards proposed in the playbook.
  • Incident response and remediation results will be reviewed by the Director of CISA.

Improving detection of cybersecurity incidents on government networks

1. Enabling a government-wide endpoint detection and response system

Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) initiative will be deployed by FCEB agencies to support proactive detection of cybersecurity incidents.

Recommendations for implementing an EDR initiative will be provided by the Secretary of Homeland Security. Within 90 days of receiving these recommendations, the Director of OMB will issue requirements for FCEB Agencies to adopt Federal Government-wide EDR approaches. The Director of OMB will work with the Secretary of Homeland Security to ensure that agencies have adequate resources to comply with the requirements issued.

A report describing how authorization to conduct threat-hunting activities on FCEB networks without prior authorization is being implemented will be provided by the Director of CISA.

Appropriate actions for improving detection of cyber incidents affecting National Security Systems will be recommended by the Director of the NSA. Within 90 days, the Secretary of Defense, the Director of National Intelligence, and the CNSS shall review these recommendations and establish policies that effectuate those recommendations.

2. Improving information sharing within the Federal government

To ensure alignment between Department of Defense Information Network (DODIN) directives and FCEB Information Systems directives, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Homeland Security shall:

  • establish procedures to immediately share with each other relevant Orders or Directives collected by them concerning their respective information networks within 60 days,
  • evaluate whether to adopt any guidance contained in the information shared by the other Department
  • notify the APNSA and Administrator of the Office of Electronic Government within OMB of the evaluation described whether to adopt guidance issued by the other Department, the rationale behind it, and a timeline for application of the directive, within 7 days of receiving information from the other department.

Improving investigative and remediation capabilities

Network and system logs must be collected and maintained by agencies and their IT service providers to address a cyber incident on FCEB Information Systems, if necessary. They will also be required to provide them, upon request, to the Secretary of Homeland Security and to the FBI.

The requirements for what information to collect will be recommended by the Secretary of Homeland Security to the Director of OMB. This includes the types of logs to be maintained, the time periods to retain the logs and other relevant data, the time periods for agencies to enable recommended logging and security requirements, and how to protect logs within an agency’s systems and networks. Within 90 days of receiving these recommendations, the Director of OMB will formulate policies for agencies to establish requirements for logging and work with agency heads to ensure that agencies have adequate resources to comply with the requirements.

What prompted this order?

In a press call, a senior administration official cited several recent cybersecurity incidents that severely harmed the nation:

SolarWinds Hack: This Russia-linked incident, which occurred late last year, affected 9 federal agencies and 100 private companies. Hackers compromised SolarWinds’ monitoring and management software, which was used by multiple government agencies and Fortune 500 companies.

Microsoft Exchange Hack: Earlier in March, Microsoft announced that Chinese hacking group Hafnium exploited vulnerabilities in its Exchange Server. Hafnium attacked 30,000 organisations in the US alone, with several hundred thousand worldwide. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki termed the breach a “significant vulnerability that could have far-reaching impacts”.

Colonial Pipeline Attack: Earlier this month, one of the largest fuel pipelines in the US was taken offline, following a cyberattack that affected the IT systems of the company that runs the pipeline. The pipeline is said to carry 45% of the fuel supply for the eastern US. Details of the attack are not fully known yet, but it is suspected to be a ransomware attack by the criminal group DarkSide.

These high-profile attacks, along with other incidents like the ransomware attack closing Baltimore schools last year and lax security protocols leaving a Kansas county without drinking water supply, have promoted the US government to act decisively.

“Today’s executive order makes a down payment towards modernizing our cyber defenses and safeguarding many of the services on which we rely. It reflects a fundamental shift in our mindset — from incident response to prevention, from talking about security to doing security — setting aggressive but achievable goals to make the federal government a leader in cybersecurity, and improve software security and incident response.” – A senior administration official said in a press call.

While the order announces many ambitious steps the federal government will take to modernize the nation’s cyber defences, it also calls private players to follow its lead. “Much of our domestic critical infrastructure is owned and operated by the private sector, and those private sector companies make their own determination regarding cybersecurity investments. We encourage private sector companies to follow the Federal government’s lead and take ambitious measures to augment and align cybersecurity investments with the goal of minimizing future incidents,” a White House factsheet stated.

Gaps the US government is looking to address

Stating that adversaries use multiple methods to attack such as hunting for coding errors or compromising supply chains to create an opportunity, a senior administration official highlighted some common gaps that all incidents exhibit:

  1. Laissez-faire attitude towards cybersecurity: “For too long, we failed to take the necessary steps to modernize our cybersecurity defences because doing so takes time, effort, and money. And instead, we’ve accepted that we’ll move from one incident response to the next. And we simply cannot let ‘waiting for the next incident to happen’ be the status quo under which we operate,” the official said.
  2. Poor software security: Many government agencies routinely install software with significant vulnerabilities. According to the senior administration official, the current market development of “build, sell, and maybe patch later” has resulted in vulnerable software finding its way into government systems, including into some of the most critical systems and infrastructure.”These are systems that we use to run government and conduct commerce, systems that are used to deliver our power and our water, to help manage traffic on our roads. The cost of the continuing status quo is simply unacceptable,” the official said.

Executive Order | White House Fact Sheet | Press Call

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