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Plans to centralize cybersecurity with DHS seen as step forward

Plans for a $6 billion federal shopping hub to help government agencies protect their unclassified networks from cyberattacks sparked optimism among experts who believed the program could significantly improve security.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could award contracts for the cybersecurity program as early as this month, Bloomberg reported. The so-called Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation program could become the largest of its kind in the U.S. government.

The plan entails more than just providing security hardware, software and consulting services to federal, state and local agencies. The program would also act as an early warning system by continuously monitoring networks to identify vulnerabilities that could be exploited by hackers.

"The government is basically putting funds towards continuous monitoring with a focus on reducing the attack surface," Ron Gula, chief executive of Tenable Network Security, said on Wednesday. "This is a great thing."

Centralizing cybersecurity would also have the benefit of helping to create a standard architecture across agencies, Murray Jennex, an associate professor of information system security at San Diego State University, said.

"A central hub will make it easier to buy integrated solutions that should work together and not have to be forced to work together," Jennex said.

However, because DHS funding of such a project is new, there is a concern over how the program will eventually be administered.

"This may turn out to not be a negative, but right now there are many questions from Tenable customers and partners," Gula said.

While large, centrally managed purchasing centers usually lower product costs by buying in quantity, they also take longer to replace or update inventory, Jennex said.

Nevertheless, Tom Gann, vice president for government relations at Intel-owned McAfee, believed the program would help state and local governments bolster security by providing a closer relationship with DHS.

[Also see: DHS secretary Napolitano's departure leaves leadership vacuum]

"It can accelerate the adoption of good security practices by state and local governments," Gann said. "We see goodness here."

The General Services Administration will award contracts to as many as five companies to provide the central hubs, Bloomberg reported. Bidders include Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, SAIC and Computer Sciences. The contracts will have a combined maximum value of $6 billion over as many as five years.

The program follows President Barack Obama's executive order in February that required federal agencies to share information on cyberthreats.

The monitoring piece of the program is expected to eventually perform up to 80 billion security checks every three days across government networks, the Federal Times reported. Summaries of the collected data will go to DHS to identify the most serious threats.

How successful DHS will be in sharing the data remains to be seen. While proponents say the program will distribute information faster, Jennex was skeptical.

"Unfortunately, history is not on their side as the government has always had a hard time transferring knowledge gained into practice," he said. "I also doubt that the early warning will work as well as expected as you still have to overcome the non-sharing culture of security organizations."

Improving cybersecurity across government agencies is crucial given the increase in cyberespionage from nation states, particular China, experts say. Yet some agencies have struggled to meet government security requirements, including the Labor Department, Social Security Administration and the Transportation Department, said a White House progress report released in June.

Read more about malware/cybercrime in CSOonline's Malware/Cybercrime section.


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