The Real Challenge to Government Cyber-security

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2008-11-11 Print this article Print


A long time ago I worked for a company that did some contract testing work for the Canadian federal government. (I spent a February in Ottawa and Hull. Brr ...) The government officials we dealt with liked to point out that all Canadian computer purchasing was centralized, but in the United States it was distributed to each department. They thought this was nuts and horribly wasteful and they had a point. This alone makes centralizing security management difficult, if at all possible.

But the same is true of the management of security, which is intrinsically tied in with other policies of computer and network usage and access. Security policy dictates what systems software you can use, what your update policies are, what your policies must be for remote access to computers and so on. The justification for letting individual departments, or even smaller units, make these decisions is that they understand their own needs better than some Federal Office of Security Autocracy.

These departments and agencies don't want to surrender authority, let alone budget dollars, to someone outside who will be telling them what they can do with their own computers. It's a serious loss of power and affects their policy missions. Call it a turf war if you want and say what it needs is a good dose of leadership, but that's basically just rhetoric. What we're talking about here is a major, radical change, and it's not likely.

The Defense Science Board report (PDF) quoted in eWEEK seems to be arguing in part for "deperimeterization," an idea I've ridiculed in the past.. But even being generous to the idea, it demands even more fundamental, radical change and even more sophisticated management tools. It's not realistic. The only changes we should expect to see are incremental.

So, yeah, our cyber-infrastructure is a strategic asset and protecting it is a priority. This is not a bold, controversial position. Some experts may argue that cyber-security wasn't a priority for the Bush administration, but I'll be surprised if it ends up being much more of one for the next administration.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

For insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer's blog Cheap Hack.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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