Hardening DOD's cybersecurity blanket

Federal agencies have intensified their emphasis on cybersecurity and that means more scrutiny on how contractors protect their sensitive data.

As interoperability continues to be a priority within the Defense Department, the concern surrounding the protection of data has also increased. We can see this in the adoption by DOD of the more stringent Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) protocols for contractors, a framework that ensures contractors can adequately protect sensitive data.

Federal agencies have recently intensified their emphasis on cyber security, as focus has expanded from preventing attacks to assuming attacks are imminent and minimizing the impact. Their concern is more than justified, as the cadence of high-profile breaches in recent years demonstrates.

Cyber security had been a priority of DOD for years before the Solar Winds affair ripped away the government’s security blanket, exposing some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets. Even now, months after it was identified, the extent of the damage from that still-unfolding attack is not fully known, but it appears to be massive.

In a newly published book by New York Times cybersecurity reporter Nicole Perlroth, ominously titled “This is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race,” the author talks about so-called Zero-Day code – software bugs that allow hackers to break into devices and move around undetected inside them – based on operating system flaws which had been surreptitiously collected and stored for possible future attacks on hostile entities. Somehow, these were stolen and, in some cases, made available for sale on the Dark Web.

It all came at a point when the United States had, by its own choice, become the most internet-dependent nation on earth, with essentially every business, government, nonprofit, and consumer organization unable to accomplish their day to day without internet. What this meant was that any of those systems could readily be hacked and, in a worst-case scenario, shut down or rendered inoperable without a single shot being fired. America’s most vital digital lifelines, in other words, are frighteningly vulnerable to hostile attacks and exposed to unthinkable damage.

DOD is aware of this and in order to maintain combat readiness, a constant stream of innovation in areas including offensive and defensive cybersecurity initiatives in order to protect those mission critical assets is essential. At the same time, the agency also understands that innovation is more likely to come from private contractors than from within its own ranks. As a result, requiring contractors to meet certain security requirements has been a DOD practice for many years. But for most of that time, satisfying security conditions has been just another checkbox for suppliers to tick on their way to performing their assigned tasks. It was largely a once-and-done exercise that most contractors considered complete by the outset of their work.

A significant problem, of course, is that security threats are not static, and standards don’t adapt as quickly as malicious actors. If anything, the world of hackers and attackers has been even more agile than organizations which pride themselves on flexibility. Security, in other words, is a constant battle against an irregular army of very nimble foes. In 2010, for example, the state of Utah, home to some critical data infrastructure utilized by US intelligence was experiencing between 25,000 and 80,000 attacks each day. By last year, they were seeing peaks of more than 300 million a day, mostly from botnets searching for signs of weakness in government computer programs. Most were fended off, but not all.

The highly publicized hemorrhage of personal data over the past decade has raised public awareness about the importance of safeguarding sensitive information. But not everyone has the know-how or resources to do it. The same applies to government contractors. Private companies seeking contracts from DOD cover the spectrum in size and resources. Some giant firms, making complex products in multiple facilities with tens of thousands of employees, have both the experience and capacity to satisfy some of the Department’s most stringent security requirements. Others, which include boutique shops with only a handful of employees, have neither. Their experience with security may be limited to issuing employee passwords, and their finances are sometimes quite fragile. 

That puts DOD in something of a quandary. On the one hand, they need the creative abilities that a small contractor can bring. On the other, they don’t want a contractor to unwittingly create a hole in the agency’s cybersecurity perimeter. To reduce that possibility, a number of NIST and DFARS standards/regulations have been published over the years documenting cybersecurity requirements, the most recent is the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification, or CMMC. DFARS 252.204-7012 required contractors to conduct a self-assessment based on the NIST SP-800-171 standards and provide a Plan of Action and Milestones (POA&M) on how they will fix the areas of non-compliance and create a System Security Plan (SSP), all by December 31, 2017. Now, with the adoption of CMMC, cybersecurity contractors will have to prove maturity processes and best practices that meet several separate security standards and frameworks, and be certified by a third party, before engaging in any work for DOD.

CMMC certification will not be required right away for all defense contractors, although it envisions eventually becoming mandatory for everyone doing business with DOD. It provides compliance standards for five different trust levels, at least one of which will be required for either an initial contract award or the continuation of one previously in force; it also requires independent verification of compliance. Contractors should expect to spend between $3,000 - $5,000 for the the most basic level of maturity.

As an evolutionary step along the path toward modernization, innovation, and greater security, the CMMC initiative, much of which is supported by volunteers, represents a welcome new focus on standards as well as an important contribution to a nimbler national security structure. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.