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While some groups applauded the Biden administration’s pledge to prioritize cybersecurity and help small governments fight attacks, others said more technical assistance and federal funding is needed.
The release of the Biden administration’s National Cybersecurity Strategy last week shows the federal government is serious about helping all levels of government with cybersecurity, according to some observers.
But others warned that states and localities need much more assistance from both a technical and financial standpoint if their systems are to be truly secure from cyberattacks and other threats. More unfunded mandates, they said, could limit progress on the nation’s cybersecurity goals.
While the national strategy said that “robust collaboration” is needed to ensure America’s cyberspace is protected, Biden acknowledged in the document’s foreword that “too much of the responsibility for cybersecurity has fallen on individual users and small organizations,” including state and local governments, something he called a “systemic challenge.”
“By working in partnership with industry; civil society; and State, local, Tribal, and territorial governments, we will rebalance the responsibility for cybersecurity to be more effective and more equitable,” Biden said.
The plan says that defending critical infrastructure—a portion of which is under the jurisdiction of local governments—is “vital” to national security. To do that, it calls for better collaboration between the public and private sectors, expanding the use of minimum cybersecurity requirements across the various sectors of critical infrastructure and defending and modernizing networks.
On a White House call with reporters to preview the plan, Acting National Cyber Director Kemba Walden said the strategy “fundamentally reimagines America’s … cyber social contract” and “will rebalance the responsibility for managing cyber risk onto those who are most able to bear it.”
“Today, across the public and private sectors, we tend to devolve responsibility for cyber risk downwards,” Walden continued. “We ask individuals, small businesses, and local governments to shoulder a significant burden for defending us all. This isn’t just unfair, it’s ineffective.”
Both Rita Reynolds, chief information officer at the National Association of Counties, and Alex Whitaker, director of government affairs at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, said in separate emails that they were “encouraged” by the strategy.
“We believe the strategy sets up counties, through the kind of direct funding we’ve been advocating for, to partner with industry to achieve those goals,” Reynolds said. Whitaker said NASCIO looks forward to “implementing measures that will assist states in protecting both citizens and critical infrastructure.”
Others, however, are not so convinced. In an email, a National League of Cities spokesperson said while the strategy “makes some promising moves in the right direction,” cities need more technical assistance and federal funding to defend themselves against threats.
“More unfunded mandates will not result in more secure municipal systems—the mismatch between the threat environment and municipal resources is too great,” the spokesperson continued. “We need sensible regulatory alignment to be paired with substantial ongoing grant support to build the systems and workforce needed to secure water systems, transportation networks, elections, and other vital services for residents.”
The strategy appeared to recognize the difficult fiscal conditions state and local governments operate under when it comes to cybersecurity. It noted that they and many others that are responsible for maintaining infrastructure “have limited resources and competing priorities, yet these actors’ choices can have a significant impact on our national cybersecurity.”
The desire to expand the use of minimum cybersecurity standards among critical infrastructure sectors has also been met with some skepticism. Robert DuPree, manager of government affairs at IT company Telos, said in an email the proposed new requirements will need congressional authorization in some cases, something he called “a longshot at best.”
There is already evidence that the administration is keen to press ahead on bolstering cybersecurity in certain critical infrastructure sectors. On the heels of unveiling this national strategy, the Environmental Protection Agency released a new memorandum urging states to assess the cybersecurity risks associated with their drinking water systems.
The memo requires public water systems to adhere to cybersecurity best practices, something that the EPA said many have not yet done, and it cites EPA guidance that states should include cybersecurity when they periodically audit their water systems through sanitary surveys.
While implementing that directive could be difficult for cash-strapped water utilities, especially amid a flurry of new cyber regulations for the sector, some said it is doable if they take advantage of existing federal programs like EPA’s free Cybersecurity Technical Assistance Program.
In a statement released by EPA, Eric Kiefer, manager of the North Shore Water Commission in Wisconsin, said the technical assistance program helped the utility make “targeted improvements,” which have “significantly reduced our exposure to cybersecurity threats and improved our ability to successfully recover from a disaster.”
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