Old Challenges Haunt Homeland Security

May 2010
By Henry S. Kenyon and Maryann Lawlor
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Cybersecurity continues to be a major homeland security issue. Steve Chabinsky (l), deputy assistant director of the FBI’s Cyber Division, listens while Justice Department Chief Information Officer (CIO) Van Hitch describes efforts to coordinate federal government cybersecurity efforts by helping agency CIOs improve security and collaboration.

Applications such as social media offer potential benefit, but organizational stovepipes still remain.

Successfully managing homeland security activities requires government agencies to balance their efforts between different issues such as cyberspace, border protection, law enforcement and international cooperation. Good communications between all facets of federal, state and local government as well as the private sector is key to maintaining this equilibrium. But achieving ideal levels of coordination remains a challenge as officials struggle to counter external threats while attempting to restructure internal communications across organizational boundaries.

Many of the federal officials, corporate executives and security experts responsible for addressing these topics shared their insights at AFCEA’s 9th Annual Homeland Security Conference: DHS–The 7-Year Itch—Renewing the Commitment, held in Washington, D.C., in February. Discussions at the event covered a variety of topics, from ongoing efforts to protect federal and commercial networks from cyberthreats, to the advantages and pitfalls of new Web applications such as social media.

Defending the nation’s physical and virtual borders continues to be the primary focus for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). To achieve its goals, the department has launched a number of efforts to defend critical infrastructure from a variety of attacks. According to Bruce McConnell, counselor to the DHS’ National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) deputy undersecretary, one of the department’s initiatives includes the first-ever Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, which outlines the current state of the nation’s cyberdefenses and the threats presented by a variety of state and nonstate actors. Another DHS effort is the creation of a national cybersecurity response plan (NCSRP) involving federal, state, local and tribal governments to coordinate response to major cyber incidents.

One of the challenges of cybersecurity is that criminals and spies exploit weaknesses in software and hardware systems, explained Steve Chabinsky, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s Cyber Division. Describing the current situation as “the golden age of espionage,” he explained that chief information officers (CIOs) should consider their networks as contested territory because of the threat of infiltration and compromise. Chabinsky outlined several threat vectors used to access government networks, including vulnerabilities in the supply chain for hardware and software that can allow Trojan horses and other malicious programs to be planted ahead of time.

One governmentwide effort to coordinate responses to cyberthreats is the Information Security and Identity Management Committee (ISIMC) of the Federal CIO Council. Van Hitch, CIO at the Department of Justice and Cyber Security Committee chair for the CIO Council, outlined the committee’s work, which seeks to coordinate federal government cybersecurity issues by helping CIOs improve individual agency cybersecurity approaches and by promoting collaboration with other major groups such as the DHS and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

ISIMC has developed a tool called CyberScope, which allows the government to collect data from federal agencies to analyze security compliance under the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA). Hitch noted that 108 agencies now use CyberScope to submit FISMA data to the Office of Management and Budget. He added that the council’s next goal was to develop CyberScope into a real-time compliance-measuring tool.

Government and commercial media experts also pondered the implications of the widespread adoption of social media platforms. The popularity and growth of social media networks and blogs offer federal agencies new tools to send their message to the nation’s citizens. However, the openness of social media platforms also presents a security challenge.

The U.S. military recently has adopted social networking as an extension of its public affairs activities. Col. Kevin V. Arata, USA, director of the Army Online and Social Media Division, explained that the service wanted to formalize how it approached social media. In addition to stressing the importance of social media to junior officers, the colonel said,  the Army set up its own Facebook page to communicate the service’s message to the public. Questions regarding Army and Defense Department policy are posted on the page, and Army personnel regularly are online for question and answer sessions.

On a larger scale, social media allows a government to present its views to its citizens and the world, said Michael Walsh, project director at Forum One Communications. He cited the example of the Open Government Initiative to provide transparency into federal activities. Walsh said that citizens want government to incorporate their feedback into policy, and social media helps to enable this process. He added that social media is a useful tool for public diplomacy and explained that the United States must become a leader in this context because other nations are using social media tools actively to promote their national agendas.

While security remains an issue for social media, Walsh contended that the government must strike a balance between risk and openness. “Cybersecurity can’t trump everything,” he said. Walsh noted that three things affect security in social media: devices, such as BlackBerrys; platform; and behavior. While personal electronics can be compromised, another consideration is the use of proprietary third-party platforms such as Facebook for government social media. The main challenge of third-party sites is the potential loss of privacy when users provide personal data. A final aspect is behavior. Walsh explained that government personnel must be trained to be reactive to perceived threats or anomalies on social media sites.

Another area of concern cited by the participants was the challenge of managing the myriad programs designed to provide border security. The DHS has launched a variety of technology efforts in this area, and civilian firms are deeply involved with DHS in supporting these programs.

To track adequately the millions of people crossing U.S. borders every day, the DHS launched the US-VISIT program. Initiated in 2004, the program logs and records the identities of foreign nationals entering the United States. To date, more than 100 million people are enrolled in US-VISIT, said Steve Yonkers, deputy assistant director, Business Policy and Planning, Program Integration and Mission Training, US-VISIT, DHS.


Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier describes how cross-border initiatives with neighboring police departments allow law enforcement to share data between jurisdictions.

Yonkers explained that as of 2009, US-VISIT has expanded its biometric identification capabilities to record electronically all 10 of a visitor’s fingerprints. Once a customer is enrolled in the system, when he or she returns to the United States, that person only has to imprint four fingerprints for verification. The DHS also has tested mobile identification systems and created an information sharing plan with the Department of Justice that allows officials to search for criminal records.

Art Macius, chief of staff at the Transportation Security Administration, added that organizations such as his and the DHS also must share information with their international counterparts. This international cooperation includes efforts such as cargo screening for commercial aircraft through efforts such as the Secure Flight program. Macius said that by this spring, the program will work with U.S. airlines to screen baggage and air cargo, and that the coverage will extend to international carriers by the end of the year.

Representatives of commercial firms also discussed the DHS programs their organizations were supporting. Paul Druckman, director of DHS business development at Accenture, outlined the business environment for providing the biometric component of US-VISIT. He noted that the DHS has tested a variety of methods to record visitors’ biometric data when they enter and exit the country. From Accenture’s perspective, Druckman said, he sees a very dynamic period for technology companies providing solutions for DHS and for similar international organizations.

Installing new equipment into legacy installations remains a challenge. Gena Alexa, a partner with Unisys’ Customs and Border Protection division, shared the details of work that her firm performed in support of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI). The goal of WHTI is to provide U.S. citizens with radio frequency identification (RFID)-chip-equipped passports and identification cards to facilitate cross-border travel. Alexa described how Unisys installed RFID readers in the nation’s border crossings, noting that each facility was different. The company fitted 62 sites across the country by the June 1, 2009, deadline. The new technology cut customer wait times by 25 percent, she said.

To implement many of its programs, the DHS also must address a number of challenges and put its future efforts in order by priority. Experts and officials identified several issues such as the low number and balance of personnel, stovepiped systems and processes, and cultural issues. Echoing the concern of other conference panelists, Richard Spires, DHS CIO, said the department must improve its management of programs. “We’re weak in our disciplines around program and project management,” he stated. Sandy Peavy, CIO of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, agreed that training is stuck in the past, saying many of the training programs were developed 30 years ago. These programs are improving with the use of simulation technologies, she added.

Regarding cybersecurity, Spires said that the DHS is “driving hard” in this area. “If you look at the threat analysis, the real vulnerability is the people,” he said. The panelists agreed that although policies are in place, few employees follow them and managers rarely check. When asked to describe the characteristics of a successful program, Spires enumerated three items: the right kind of partnership models between the information technology and program departments; real requirements management; and a cadre of federal employees with the right skill sets.

Another challenge remains the human factor behind cybersecurity, specifically the skill sets required for successful security and information sharing. Representatives from the telecommunications industry, including AT&T, Qwest and Verizon, described how the changing landscape of the Internet has vastly expanded the necessity as well as the difficulty of securing federal and commercial networks. Panelists agreed that one of the primary problems is their companies’ inability to share threat information with each other. They concluded that this is a matter of law and not corporate policy. John Nagengast, executive director of strategic initiatives at AT&T, pointed out that the companies do not have integrated systems for real-time sharing of threat information even if they were permitted to do so.

Shawn Carroll from Qwest shared information from a Government Accountability Office report issued in November demonstrating that government agencies are not much better at sharing threat information even though they are permitted to do so. The report found that “most agencies have not implemented sufficient controls to prevent, limit or detect unauthorized access to computer networks, systems or information.” Panelist Marc Sachs from Verizon emphasized the unacceptability of this situation and challenged government agencies to be the “gold standard” for cybersecurity that all organizations, even the private sector, should emulate. “Stop pontificating about the rules and be an example,” he stated.

Quadrennial Homeland Security Review: www.dhs.gov/xaboutgc_1208534155450.shtm
Homeland Security Conference: www.afcea.org/events/homeland/10/home.asp 

Technology Changes Police Work in the Nation’s Capital

Technology has had a significant impact in streamlining the work of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). In an address to the attendees at AFCEA’s Homeland Security Conference, MPD Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier noted that in the three years she has been at her post, she has remodeled an antiquated, paper-driven record keeping and reporting system (SIGNAL Magazine, February, page 17). She explained that when she became chief in 2007, all police reports were written by hand and hand-delivered by police officers across the department. At that time, the police chief also had no real-time means to assess the readiness of her personnel or view the overall operational picture.

In the early days of her tenure, Chief Lanier related that the only computerized system for mapping crime involved logging in the addresses of the previous day’s crimes into Google Maps and sending police officers to cover the affected areas. The MPD also suffered from internal stovepipes, where different departments did not communicate with each other or with other regional police departments.

Chief Lanier has steadily computerized her department. She noted that the police department now is almost completely paperless and that all police cruisers are equipped with computers, allowing officers to fill out and submit reports electronically from a crime scene. The MPD also uses new technology such as imagery from closed-circuit television cameras set up around the city, automated license plate readers and shot-spotter devices that detect and report gunfire.

The added technology has improved the department’s efficiency, which has reduced crime significantly in the city. Chief Lanier said that 2009 saw a 23 percent drop in homicides in Washington to the lowest murder rate since 1966. Additionally, the closure rate for homicides has risen to 75.5 percent.

The MPD also established a fusion center for the national capital region. From a homeland security perspective, Chief Lanier said that the center collects and stores crime and terror alerts into a data warehouse. She noted that if identified terror suspects attempted to enter the capital, their vehicles could be tracked with the department’s automated license plate readers.

Chief Lanier added that as a police officer, she sees crime and terrorism as interrelated because for a terrorist attack to succeed, a crime, such as falsified documents and illegally obtained explosives, must be committed.

She noted that the MPD also is involved in a variety of cross-border initiatives with the other police departments in the capital region. One such effort, with Maryland state and local police departments, features a software modification that allows Maryland and Washington, D.C., police officers to use a common dashboard for sharing crime data between jurisdictions. "It’s a completely different day for D.C.," she said.

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