Will Obama€™s new cyber-security plan make a difference? We can only hope

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US President Barack Obama has unveiled the outlines of a change in direction for US cyber-security policy.

The first announcement relates to the creation of a new military command that will centralise and expand on existing cyber-war-fighting capabilities.

This is overdue, and should bring more coherence to efforts that were already spread out between several different military branches, notably the Army, Navy and Air Force), and the intelligence services. The NSA, for example, has long had a “red-team” offensive capability in addition to defensive corps.

As I understand it, the new military cyber-command will reside in the Department of Defense. Less clear is whether the new organisation will just be a military operation, or whether it will also take over parts of the intelligence services’ capabilities.

The second part of today's announcements, the Cyberspace Policy Review, seeks to reform the way the US Government secures itself, its agencies and critical infrastructure like the stock exchanges.

As reported in a story in the New York Times, the reforms will create a new office residing in the White House that will report to both the National Economic Council and the National Security Council.

The remainder of this blog post analyses what the plan, which was unveiled at 11 today, recommends.

Where We Came From

But first, a little background. Most security-watchers know that the last big attempt to improve government security was FISMA, the Federal Information Security Management Act. The Act codified an approach to protecting government systems.

It required all federal agencies to assess the risk of their information systems, implement minimum baseline security controls as defined by NIST, and most critically, certify and accredit that each agencies' systems had in fact implemented the required security controls.

The tangible outcome of the process was a related “scorecard” exercise undertaken by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The idea was to give letter grades (A through F) to each agency.

In theory, this sounds like a good idea. In practice, it did little to improve security. The evidence is everywhere. We've all read the reports in the news about perfidious Chinese hackers, opportunist Ruskies and the like snooping around federal systems and systematically looting them of all their treasures.

The picture painted in the press is of a government whose variously-accredited and certified systems are nonetheless wide-open to hackers. While it's hard for most people to get a real sense of the scope of the problem from the papers, people I've spoken to who do government contract work for a living tell me that the stories we've seen are just the tip of the iceberg.

And on a personal note, I can tell you that in my past I've helped investigate an incident involving an attack on a military weapons program by foreign attackers.

So the dangers seem clear and present to me.