Home Security News Behind the Curve: Federal Agencies Struggle to Keep Up with Incident Response Plans and Cybersecurity Threats

Behind the Curve: Federal Agencies Struggle to Keep Up with Incident Response Plans and Cybersecurity Threats

Posted: December 11, 2023

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Federal Agencies Yet to Fully Implement Incident Response Plans

The Federal Government is seriously lagging in implementing its incident response plans, with many agencies yet to join the small fraction that has fully understood and executed these measures. Only three of 23 federal agencies have fully implemented the investigation and remediation requirements of their incident response plans, which have been issued by the Federal Information Security Modernization Act (FISMA). This has raised serious concern over these agencies' efficacy and capability to handle cyber threats and incidents.

As per the reports of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) up till August 2023, 17 out of these 23 federal agencies were found to be 'not effective' in applying limited or no measures for their cyber incident response. Such agencies, unfortunately, include some of the major departments like Commerce, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security. Several other crucial departments are also part of the list.

Looking into the reasons for this widespread lack of implementation, several factors have played their part. Recognized among them include the lack of skilled and trained staff adept at handling cyber threats and incidents. Furthermore, technological challenges have also been identified as a major reason. Naturally, with cyber threats increasing in sophistication and complexity, the lack of technological prowess becomes a huge obstacle to proper response and remediation.

Another significant issue identified is the limitation in threat information sharing. The pertinent departments have limited capabilities in efficiently sharing threat information with the requisite entities. This lack of timely information sharing impacts the preparedness against and response to cyber threats. Thus, it is pivotal for the federal government to overcome these hindrances and optimize its incident response plans for the sake of national security and public interest. Without a full implementation and strict adherence to such plans, the risks remain high, and the consequences are potentially disastrous.

Agencies' Steps Towards Implementing Incident Response Plans

Though the implementation of incident response plans in federal agencies is alarmingly low, it's not to say that no steps are being taken toward their realization. All federal agencies, for instance, have begun utilizing software tools to assist in their incident response. Adopting such technological aids is a step in the right direction and portrays these agencies' acknowledgment of technology's pivotal role in mitigating cyber threats.

Another positive development is the inclusion or planned incorporation of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency's (CISA) playbook, an integral tool for vulnerability and incident response, within their cyber defense strategies. This playbook provides comprehensive guidelines that can tremendously assist these agencies in detecting and managing cyber threats efficiently.

However, there are still certain areas where progress has been less than satisfactory. By August 2023, only three agencies were able to reach event logging maturity, based on the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) M-21-31 memorandum. The event logging maturity pertains to an agency's capability to keep a comprehensive and detailed record of all log events within its network. This assists greatly in tracking, analyzing, and responding to cyber incidents and threats. For only three agencies to reach this level of maturity is sobering and illustrates the significant effort that is still required in this area.

While incremental steps are being made toward implementing these incident response plans, the pace and extent of these changes are evidently insufficient. The gravity of cyber threats to national security reiterates the need for swifter and wider-ranging steps in facilitating the fully-fledged implementation of these plans.

GAO's Recommendations and Feedback from the Agencies

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), recognizing the need for immediate and complete implementation of incident response plans, has made certain recommendations. It has proposed 20 specific measures for 19 federal agencies to ensure the full realization of logging requirements. These requirements are essential in maintaining comprehensive knowledge of network maneuvers and spotting potential cyber threats in a timely manner.

These issued measures were met with approval by most of the agencies, as 16 out of the 19 confirmed their agreement with the GAO's recommendations. This agreement evidences the willingness and commitment of these agencies to optimize their incident response plans and defend their domains against cyber threats effectively.

However, three federal agencies didn't confirm their stance on the GAO's recommendations, neither agreeing nor disagreeing explicitly. Such an ambiguous response does not project a transparent commitment to the issue at hand, raising queries over their intentions and eventual compliance.

The GAO further recommends that executive branch agencies focus on the necessary measures to address the hundreds of remaining high-risk areas. More so, it suggests that their timely execution will result in sustainable solutions and tighten the cyber defense of these agencies. GAO emphasized the importance of continued congressional oversight to effectuate greater progress and suggested that some of these cases might need facilitation through relevant legislation.

In conclusion, the GAO's recommendations indicate the dire need for a systemic uplift of cyber incident response capabilities across federal agencies. The future of successful cyber defense practically revolves around the timely implementation of these recommendations and adherence to established incident response plans.

Cybersecurity Threats and Updates

The cyber threat landscape is constantly evolving; by 2024, it is expected to take on even more complex and sophisticated dimensions.

One of the significant transformative factors in the cybersecurity world worth noting is the rise of Artificial Intelligence AI-powered attacks. According to cyber expert Rik Ferguson, these AI-powered attacks are set to become progressively more common. As the sophistication and intelligence of malware and attack tactics increase, defending against these new-age threats becomes eerily challenging.

A comprehensive and well-rounded security approach encompassing more than managing incidents effectively is essential, particularly given that AI attack methods can adapt and learn over time. This represents a major factor for both the threat and architectural viewpoint of the federal incident response plans.

Preventing AI-powered threats necessitates a thorough understanding of the nature of these attacks and the measures necessary to prevent them. Moving forward, federal agencies need to ensure AI-powered threats are included in their incident response plans and update their strategies continually based on the latest threat intelligence.

Keeping informed about the latest threats and trends is key to maintaining robust cyber defenses. As such, SecurityWeek's email briefings and expert columns provide valuable insights into the developing cyber threat situation. Additionally, virtual events on important aspects of cybersecurity, like the Cyber Insurance & Liability Summit, provide deep insights into the swiftly changing facets of cybersecurity.

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