Cyber Department of Homeland Defense
By Sam Curry
The priority of cybersecurity in the United States’ Trump Administration is in limbo since Secretary Nielsen resigned on Sunday as the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. As such, she was at the top of what is the third largest government cabinet department with over 200,000 people, and she steered the course for an organization that ranges from borders and TSA to the Coast Guard and the US Secret Service. Most importantly, she was a leader and an advocate for cyber strength and investment.
It goes almost without saying that the cyber defense of a nation is critical and at least as important as the physical boundaries and controls after a certain minimum physical defense. In other words, there’s a critical mass of military, customs and immigration enforcement after which there are diminishing returns for more investment. At that point, getting cyber right is vital. Even more importantly, you can’t just throw more men and women, money and equipment at the problem and make it better. Cyber takes nurturing, coordination of the public and private sector and two critical ingredients: leadership and policy.
Cyber policy takes real leadership, not just “management.”
It’s not about giving orders and having a literal, military response (although there is some of that in the military and around Cyber Command in the United States where it belongs). Instead, it’s about debate, discussion, charting a course in uncertainty, gravitas and leadership, with a capital “L.”
Secretary Nielsen had that. She is a leader.
Being the Secretary of Homeland Security can’t really be anything but a leadership position. It also remains, however, a political position. This means that in the U.S. system of government, the people elect the Chief Executive; and that President appoints the Secretary of DHS. The Secretary resigned with grace and gravitas, but the question remains “what was the fundamental priority or policy difference between her and the President?” Now we are left wondering where Cyber will fall on the list of priorities and what the successor will care about.
I am not a Washington insider, but the media is reporting rumors of her being at odds with President Trump on a variety of issues including border enforcement. Regardless of the cause, many have praised Secretary Nielsen’s leadership, and Sean Lyngaas quoted her as saying “we have replaced complacency with consequences” and then going on to say cyberattacks now exceed the risk of physical attack. Sean’s article also cites some of her victories and impact in her short time from a cyber perspective, including getting Congress to codify DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency.
Without getting into the politics, I couldn’t agree with her more about cyberspace’s importance: I remain more concerned about cyber risks than I am about physical borders for a host of reasons I’ve mentioned before. We can expect this debate to continue and not go away quietly because of climate change and the possibility of climate refugees in the months and years to come. Whether you are on the political right and see waves of chaos arriving or on the political left and see a natural ebb and flow, we know this administration will look for all evidence of external threats to galvanize support for physical security.
At this point, we can only hope that the importance of cyber is clear now and will be maintained and grown. Let’s build on the Secretary’s success. The “us versus them” thinking is something we understand culturally and societally, but building resilience into critical infrastructure and making our “Cyber” antifragile is not so easily understood by traditional, physical security expertise. So Mrs. or Mr. Future Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, my request to you on behalf of our industry, please keep Cyber at the top of your agenda.