Steve Charles


Opportunities rising from subtle shift in security priorities

Now that your federal customers have a reprieve from a government shutdown, savvy marketers are scouring the landscape for opportunities allowable under the budget agreement. A series of unfortunate events has kept cybersecurity not only at the forefront of policy, but also in the minds of millions of individuals directly affected by how well federal agencies protect their networks and data.

October also was cybersecurity month, so the Defense Department has issued new rules requiring contractors to report when their networks are penetrated and government program data compromised. Cybersecurity threat detection and mitigation efforts are ongoing while agencies strive to increase the resilience of their systems.

A subtle but definitive shift has occurred in how agency managers think about security. More and more you hear the term “data security,” “information security (or infosec),” and “information assurance” in reference to the major challenges, as contrasted with network security. After all, in the end, it’s all about the data, isn’t it?

The now-historic breach at the Office of Personnel Management illustrates why. Many security officers now simply presume network penetrations will occur. When a given agency can log literally a billion hits a month, it is a matter of statistical certainty that some will get through.

So the shift in thinking is: can we prevent loss of data -- usually the objective of a penetration -- in the event of a successful breach? What OPM showed was the classic idea of hard and crunchy on the outside, soft and vulnerable on the inside. It’s not a new idea, but it’s been an expensive lesson.

This is not to say agencies won’t be interested in the latest products and services for intrusion detection and prevention. Even though Raytheon recently received a billion dollar contract -- subsequently protested by Northrop Grumman -- from the Homeland Security Department for further development of the Einstein 3 systems under the so-called DOMino program (Development, Operations and Maintenance), don’t presume the opportunities in this area have dried up.

For one thing, Einstein is in place in only half the government. For another, a range of options are emerging from the vendor community that agencies need to consider along with whatever DHS eventually installs. Beyond that -- again as OPM shows -- no intrusion detection system will be operative if someone gains possession of legitimate credentials and waltzes into the network using them.

Besides, those intent on penetrating U.S. public and private sector networks continue to innovate. That is, new zero-day attack vectors and methodologies emerge almost daily. That’s leading cyber defenders to intensify their use of a proactive cyber defense for detecting and understanding zero-day and advanced persistent threats. Namely, identifying and organizing responses in advance of zero day threats. Several vendors offer tools for detecting vulnerabilities in new applications, keeping CISOs apprised of the latest social media attacks for example.

Increasingly, cybersecurity is becoming a game of research, trying to stay ahead of the most recent vulnerabilities. Software application vendors are mostly reluctant to offer bounty programs for white hats that discover holes. Even when they do, given the possible legal and contractual complications, agencies might be reluctant to participate directly in this sort of discovery. But that doesn’t mean they won’t buy the products and services of companies that specialize in it.

The government itself is investing in cybersecurity research. Homeland Security’s Science and Technology directorate recently awarded $14 million in research grants to several universities. Among the topics are measurement and analysis to promote current best practices, defense techniques for “novel” distributed denial of service attacks, and better tools for communication and collaboration. The grants provide a window into the government’s top concerns.

Another big opportunity lies in helping agencies deal with encryption. Too many agencies err in how they architect their encryption setups, storing keys alongside other login credentials in a single database. This is what many expert observers believe helped the hackers in the OPM case access so much data after purloining a legitimate login credential.

Finally, given the growth of federal agency data in clouds, expect increased scrutiny across all layers of any “as-a-service” offering before receiving an authority to operate.

About the Author

Steve Charles is a co-founder of immixGroup, which helps technology companies do business with government. He is a frequent speaker and lecturer on technology and the federal procurement process. He can be reached at or connect with him on LinkedIn at

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