March 23, 2015
attack with high impact can pose a larger risk than a
common successful attack with low impact.
Information and communications technology (ICT) has
evolved greatly over the last half-century. ICT devices and
components now form a highly interdependent system of
networks, infrastructure, and resident data—known as
cyberspace—that has become ubiquitous and increasingly
integral to almost every facet of modern society. Experts
and policymakers are increasingly concerned about
cybersecurity—protecting cyberspace from attack by
criminals and other adversaries.
The risks associated with any attack depend on three
factors: threats (who is attacking), vulnerabilities (how they
are attacking), and impacts (what the attack does).
What are the threats? People who perform cyberattacks
include criminals intent on monetary gain from crimes such
as theft or extortion; spies intent on stealing information
used by government or private entities; nation-state
warriors who develop capabilities and undertake
cyberattacks to support strategic objectives; “hacktivists”
who perform cyberattacks for nonmonetary reasons; and
terrorists who engage in cyberattacks as a form of non-state
or state-sponsored warfare.
Reducing the risks from cyberattacks usually involves (1)
removing the threat source, e.g., by closing down botnets or
reducing incentives for cybercriminals; (2) addressing
vulnerabilities by hardening ICT assets, e.g., by patching
software and training employees; and (3) lessening impacts
by mitigating damage and restoring functions, e.g., by
having back-up resources available for continuity of
operations in response to an attack.
The federal role in cybersecurity involves both securing
federal systems and assisting in protecting nonfederal
cyberspace. All federal agencies are responsible for
protecting their own systems, and many have sectorspecific responsibilities for CI. More than 50 statutes
address various aspects of cybersecurity, and additional
legislation has been proposed.
Figure 1. Federal Agency Roles in Cybersecurity
What are the vulnerabilities? Cybersecurity is an arms
race between attackers and defenders. Attackers are
constantly probing ICT systems for weaknesses. Defenders
can often protect against them, but three are particularly
challenging: inadvertent or intentional acts by insiders with
access to a system; supply chain vulnerabilities, which can
permit the insertion of malicious software or hardware
during the acquisition process; and previously unknown, or
zero-day, vulnerabilities with no established fix.
What are the impacts? A successful attack can
compromise the confidentiality, integrity, and availability
of an ICT system and the information it handles. Cybertheft
or cyberespionage can result in exfiltration of financial,
proprietary, or personal information from which the
attacker can benefit. Denial-of-service attacks can slow or
prevent legitimate users from accessing a system. Botnet
malware can give an attacker command of a system for use
in cyberattacks on other systems. Attacks on industrial
control systems can result in the destruction of the
equipment they control, such as generators, pumps, and
Most cyberattacks have limited impacts, but a successful
attack on some components of critical infrastructure (CI)—
most of which are held by the private sector, such as the
electric grid and major financial institutions—could have
significant effects on national security, the economy, and
the livelihood and safety of individuals. A rare successful
Notes: DHS: Department of Homeland Security; DOD: Department
of Defense; DOJ: Department of Justice; FISMA: the Federal
Information Security Management Act; IC: Intelligence Community;
NIST: National Institute of Standards and Technology; NSA: National
Security Agency; NSS: National Security Systems; OMB: Office of
Management and Budget; R&D: Research and development.
Figure 1 is a simplified schematic diagram of major agency
responsibilities in cybersecurity. In general, NIST develops
FISMA standards that apply to federal civilian ICT, and
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OMB is responsible for overseeing their implementation.
DHS has operational responsibility for protection of federal
civilian systems and is the lead agency coordinating federal
efforts assisting the private sector in protecting CI assets
under their control. DOJ is the lead agency for enforcement
of relevant laws.
DOD, which accounts for more than 70% of all federal
spending on cybersecurity, is responsible for military
cyberspace operations, defense support of civil authorities
when requested, and, through NSA, security of NSS. NSA
is also part of the IC. The director of the NSA also leads the
U.S. Cyber Command, whose main mission areas are
defending the DOD information networks, providing
support to combatant commanders for execution of their
global missions, and strengthening the nation’s ability to
withstand and respond to cyberattack. DOD has the
authority to conduct cyberspace activities in support of
military operations pursuant to a congressionally authorized
use of force outside of the United States, or to defend
against a cyberattack on a DOD asset.
What does the cybersecurity framework do? In February
2013, the White House issued Executive Order 13636 to
address CI cybersecurity. Among other things, the order
required NIST to lead public/private development of a
Cybersecurity Framework of standards and best practices
for protecting CI. Released in February 2014, the
Framework received positive reviews, but it appears too
early to determine the extent to which it will improve CI
Since the 111th Congress, more than 200 bills have been
introduced that would address cybersecurity issues. Five
were enacted at the end of the 113th Congress. They
• FISMA Reform—updating the act to reflect changes in
ICT and the threat landscape.
• Workforce—improving the size, skills, and preparation
of the DHS cybersecurity workforce.
• R&D—updating agency authorizations and strategic
• Program Authorization—providing specific statutory
authorization for ongoing activities of NIST (relating to
the Framework, education, and awareness); the National
Science Foundation (Scholarship-for-Service program);
and DHS (the National Cybersecurity and
Communications Integration Center [NCCIC]).
In the 114th Congress, debate has centered on three issues:
• Information Sharing—easing access of the private
sector to threat information and removing barriers to
sharing within the private sector and with the federal
government. Controversies: Roles of DHS, DOD, and
the IC; impacts on privacy and civil liberties; risks of
misuse by the federal government or the private sector;
effects of proposed liability protections.
• Data-Breach Notification—requiring protective
measures and notification to customers and other parties
after data breaches involving personal or financial
information of individuals. Controversies: Federal vs.
state roles; what protections and responses should be
• Cybercrime Laws—updating criminal statutes and lawenforcement authorities relating to cybersecurity.
Controversies: Adequacy of current penalties and
authorities; federal vs. state roles; clarifying scope of
current criminal liability, including impacts on civil
Current proposals are largely designed to address near-term
needs in cybersecurity. However, those needs exist in the
context of more difficult long-term challenges relating to
design, incentives, consensus, and environment (DICE):
Design: Experts often say that effective security needs to be
an integral part of ICT design. Yet, developers have
traditionally focused more on features than security, for
economic reasons. Also, many future security needs cannot
be predicted, posing a difficult challenge for designers.
Incentives: The structure of economic incentives for
cybersecurity has been called distorted or even perverse.
Cybercrime is regarded as cheap, profitable, and
comparatively safe for the criminals. In contrast,
cybersecurity can be expensive, is by its nature imperfect,
and the economic returns on investments are often unsure.
Consensus: Cybersecurity means different things to
different stakeholders, with little common agreement on
meaning, implementation, and risks. Substantial cultural
impediments to consensus also exist, not only between
sectors but within sectors and even within organizations.
Environment: Cyberspace has been called the fastest
evolving technology space in human history, both in scale
and properties. New and emerging properties and
applications—especially social media, mobile computing,
big data, cloud computing, and the Internet of things—
further complicate the evolving threat environment, but
they can also pose potential opportunities for improving
cybersecurity, for example through the economies of scale
provided by cloud computing and big data analytics.
Legislation and executive actions could have significant
impacts on those challenges. For example, R&D may affect
ICT design, cybercrime penalties may influence the
structure of incentives, the Framework may improve
consensus about cybersecurity, and federal initiatives in
cloud computing and other new components of cyberspace
may help shape the evolution of cybersecurity. See also
CRS Issues Before Congress: Cybersecurity at
Eric A. Fischer, email@example.com, 7-7071
Catherine A. Theohary, firstname.lastname@example.org, 7-0844
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