Sizing Up the Impact of Partial DHS ShutdownOfficial: Response to Cyber-Attacks Could Be Slowed
The expansion of some major federal government cybersecurity initiatives would be suspended if Congress does not fund the Department of Homeland Security by week's end, triggering a partial shutdown.
Initiatives to expand the Einstein 3 intrusion prevention and continuous diagnostic and mitigation programs to a number of federal civilian agencies would be placed on hold if Congress fails to come up with the money by Feb. 27, when a temporary DHS appropriation ends.
"A shutdown would prevent us from bringing aboard those [programs] and essentially stop those agencies from receiving the protection that they need from the cyberthreats out there," says Andy Ozment, DHS assistant secretary for cybersecurity and communications.
About 43 percent of the staff at the National Protection and Program Directorate - the DHS entity that oversees its cybersecurity programs - would be furloughed if Congress fails to enact funding legislation that President Obama would sign, according to an estimate by the Congressional Research Service. Ozment says that furlough figure includes 140 employees from the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, the DHS unit that coordinates cyberthreat information sharing with federal agencies; local, territorial, tribal and state governments; the private sector and international organizations.
Will Systems Be at Risk?
Although Ozment, in testimony earlier this month to a House panel, said the furloughs would have an adverse impact on the government's cybersecurity activities, he stopped short of saying federal IT systems would be placed at risk by a partial shutdown.
"Without these staff, the NCCIC's capacity to provide a timely response to agencies or critical infrastructure customers seeking assistance after a cybersecurity incidents would be decreased and we would be less able to conduct expedited technical analysis of cybersecurity threats," Ozment testified at a Feb. 12 hearing of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies.
Funding DHS's cybersecurity initiatives - which has widespread support from among Democrats and Republicans in Congress - is caught up in a highly partisan political battle over President Obama's executive order to shield millions of illegal immigrants in the United States from deportation. The House in January passed a DHS appropriations bill that would fund most department programs, including those for cybersecurity, but withholds money from initiatives that would support Obama's executive action on immigration. With a threat of a Senate filibuster by Democratic members, as well as a presidential veto, the House bill has stalled in the upper chamber.
Lamentable But Not Perilous
Jason Healey, a cybersecurity expert at the think tank The Atlantic Council, says he doubts the failure to fund DHS cybersecurity initiatives would create significant risk to either government or critical private networks. "That seems like it's a lamentable thing that they can't continue [funding], but it doesn't worry me too much," he says, adding that other federal agencies work to help safeguard government networks and critical IT systems in the private sector, including the FBI.
Besides the temporary suspensions of the Einstein 3 and continuous diagnostic and mitigation programs, also known as continuous monitoring, Ozment said a partial shutdown would halt development of new programs to secure IT. "We would be unable to continue planning our next generation of information sharing capabilities that are necessary to make our information sharing real-time and automated in order to enable us to combat highly sophisticated cyberthreats," he said.