President Biden has made cybersecurity, a critical element of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) mission, a top priority for the Biden-Harris Administration at all levels of government.
To advance the President’s commitment, and to reflect that enhancing the nation’s cybersecurity resilience is a top priority for DHS, Secretary Mayorkas issued a call for action dedicated to cybersecurity in his first month in office. This call for action focused on tackling the immediate threat of ransomware and on building a more robust and diverse workforce.
In March 2021, Secretary Mayorkas outlined his broader vision and a roadmap for the Department’s cybersecurity efforts in a virtual address hosted by RSA Conference, in partnership with Hampton University and the Girl Scouts of the USA.
After his presentation, the Secretary was joined by Judith Batty, Interim CEO of the Girls Scouts, for a fireside chat to discuss the unprecedented cybersecurity challenges currently facing the United States. Dr. Chutima Boonthum-Denecke from Hampton University’s Computer Science Department introduced the Secretary and facilitated a Q&A to close the program.
- Learn more about how CISA is coordinating DHS’s broad cyber mission.
Overview of DHS Cybersecurity Sprints
In his March 31, 2021, address, Secretary Mayorkas outlined a bold vision for the Department’s cybersecurity efforts to confront the growing threat of cyber-attacks, including a series of 60-day sprints to operationalize his vision, to drive action in the coming year, and to raise public awareness about key cybersecurity priorities.
Understanding that most challenges require a more sustained effort than what can be accomplished within 60 days, the sprints are designed to leverage the Office of the Secretary to (1) elevate existing work to address the specific challenge, (2) remove roadblocks that have slowed down efforts, and (3) launch new initiatives and partnerships where needed.
“Ransomware” Sprint (April 2021 and May 2021)
This sprint focused on leveraging the Office of the Secretary to elevate the fight against ransomware, an increasingly devastating and costly form of malicious cyber activity that targets organizations of all sizes and across all sectors. Ransomware is malicious code that infects and paralyzes computer systems until a ransom has been paid. Individuals, companies, schools, police departments, and even hospitals and other critical infrastructure have been among the recent victims.
Following the Secretary’s initial call for action in February, DHS created an internal task force as part of this sprint with representatives from its Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Coast Guard, as well as its policy, legal, public affairs, and Congressional experts.
“Cybersecurity Workforce” Sprint (May 2021 and June 2021)
The second sprint focuses on building a more robust and a more diverse cybersecurity workforce. DHS cannot tackle ransomware and the broader cybersecurity challenges without talented and dedicated people who can help protect the Nation's schools, hospitals, critical infrastructure, and communities.
The focus of this sprint is the DHS workforce, who have done heroic job protecting the integrity of the Nation’s election and responding to several major cyber incidents only a few months thereafter. From launching one of the biggest cybersecurity hiring sprints in the Department’s history to launching a DHS Honors Program, this sprint covers a broad range of activities, all of which are based upon the Department’s commitment to the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“Industrial Control Systems” (ICS) Sprint (July 2021 and August 2021)
This sprint is driven by the White House Industrial Control Systems Cybersecurity Initiative, designed to mobilize action to improve the resilience of industrial control systems. The attempted cyber-attack on a water treatment facility in Florida in early 2021 as well as the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack were powerful reminders of the substantial risks that need to be addressed.
“Cybersecurity and Transportation” Sprint (September 2021 and October 2021)
During this sprint, the Secretary will focus specifically on the need to increase the cyber resilience of the Nation’s transportation systems – from aviation to rail, pipelines, and the marine transport system. The Transportation Security Agency (TSA), the U.S. Coast Guard, and CISA are all part of DHS, which presents a unique opportunity for the Department to make progress in this area, to leverage respective best practices, and to deepen the collaboration with the U.S. Department of Transportation, other interagency stakeholders, and industry.
“Election Security” Sprint (November 2021 and December 2021)
This sprint will focus on the need to cement the resilience of the Nation's democratic infrastructures and protect the integrity of its elections. Leveraging the lessons learned from the previous elections and the relationships CISA has built with local and state authorities across the country, this sprint will ensure election security remains a top priority every year, and not only during election season.
“International Cybersecurity” Sprint (January 2022 and February 2022)
This sprint is dedicated to the Department’s international cybersecurity activities ranging from those outlined in CISA’s first international “CISA Global” strategy to the U.S. Coast Guard’s Strategic Outlook to protect and operate in cyberspace, an inherently international effort. Most of the cybercrime investigations that the Secret Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement-Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) pursue every day also include a transnational dimension that requires cooperation with law enforcement partners around the globe.
Overview of Additional Ongoing Cybersecurity Priorities
In addition to the series of 60-day sprints, the Secretary will focus on four ongoing priorities: (1) cementing the resilience of democratic institutions, including the integrity of elections and institutions outside of the executive branch, (2) building back better to strengthen the protection of civilian federal government networks, (3) advancing a risk-based approach to supply chain security and exploring new technologies to increase resilience, and (4) preparing for strategic, on-the-horizon challenges and emerging technology such as the transition to post-quantum encryption algorithms.
Resilience of Democratic Institutions
Fair and free elections are a hallmark of American democracy. The American people’s confidence in the value of their vote is principally reliant on the security and resilience of the infrastructure that makes the Nation’s elections possible. Accordingly, an electoral process that is both secure and resilient is a vital national interest and one of the Department of Homeland Security’s highest priorities. The Department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) is committed to working collaboratively with those on the front lines of elections—state and local governments, election officials, federal partners, and vendors—to manage risks to the Nation’s election infrastructure. CISA will remain transparent and agile in its vigorous efforts to secure America’s election infrastructure from new and evolving threats.
Protecting the Civilian Federal Government
On May 12, 2021, President Biden signed an Executive Order to improve the nation’s cybersecurity and protect federal government networks following recent cybersecurity incidents exploiting SolarWinds and Microsoft Exchange. This Executive Order makes a significant contribution toward modernizing cybersecurity defenses by protecting federal networks, improving information-sharing between the U.S. government and the private sector on cyber issues, and strengthening the United States’ ability to respond to incidents when they occur. DHS encourages private sector companies to follow the Federal government’s lead and take ambitious measures to augment and align cybersecurity investments with the goal of minimizing future incidents.
Most of the actions outlined in the Executive Order are to be implemented by the Department of Homeland Security, namely CISA. In addition, Congress provided CISA with new authorities in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and with a down payment to improve the protection of civilian federal government networks with the funding provided through the American Rescue Plan. This ongoing priority will therefore focus on implementing the Executive Order, the NDAA, and the funding provided by Congress in an effective and timely manner.
Strengthening Supply Chain Security
The Executive Order signed by President Biden in May 2021 focuses on improving software supply chain security by establishing baseline security standards for development of software sold to the government, including requiring developers to maintain greater visibility into their software and making security data publicly available. It stands up a concurrent public-private process to develop new and innovative approaches to secure software development and uses the power of Federal procurement to incentivize the market. Finally, it creates a pilot program to create an “energy star” type of label so the government – and the public at large – can quickly determine whether software was developed securely.
Too much of software, including critical software, is shipped with significant vulnerabilities that can be exploited by cyber criminals. The Federal Government will use its purchasing power to drive the market to build security into all software from the ground up.
This ongoing priority will focus on implementing this part of the Executive Order.
Preparing for On-the-Horizon Challenges
In his March 31, 2021, speech, Secretary Mayorkas stressed the need for senior leaders to focus on strategic, on-the-horizon challenges and emerging technology. He specifically highlighted the importance of the transition to post-quantum encryption algorithms pointing out that the transition is as much dependent on the development of such algorithms as it is on their adoption. While the former is already ongoing, planning for the latter remains in its infancy. The government and industry must prepare for it now to protect the confidentiality of data that already exists today and remains sensitive in the future.
Together with its interagency partners, DHS is developing a plan for how the Department can help facilitate this transition. Considering the scale, implementation will be driven by the private sector, but the government can help ensure the transition will occur equitably, and that nobody will be left behind. DHS will focus on three pillars to drive this work forward, working in close coordination with NIST and other Federal and nonfederal stakeholders: (1) Planning for DHS’s own transition to quantum resistant encryption, (2) Cooperating with NIST on tools to help individual entities prepare for and manage the transition, and (3) Developing a risks and needs-based assessment of priority sectors and entities and engagement plan.