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Why the US is failing at cybersecurity

After the June cyberattack on the Office of Personnel Management, when a Chinese hacking group stole personal information pertaining to around 21 million federal employees. Obama called on US administrations to pay attention to, and shore up, all of their computer systems in an attempt to avoid future hacks.  Now, however, a panel of experts (including members of the Brookings Institution) are suggesting that there may be a reason that federal systems are being targeted like sitting ducks.   Government, it says, has made too little investment in the latest, and best, technological innovations.

According to the panel, outdated federal systems are quickly becoming an issue for national security, and it is due to this that government agencies are unable to compete competently with incoming threats.  In this fast-paced tech culture, where startups often bank on high-risk strategies to innovate rapidly – placing themselves at the forefront of technology – the federal government can not risk being left behind, those experts warned yesterday.

Ben Bernankethe former chairman of the Federal Reserve, also spoke at the meeting in Washington DC. He said that despite being an economic leader in technology (and having Silicon Valley at its disposal) government was not making the most of its position. ‘The political system is not good at making long-run investments with uncertain impacts,’ he said.

Michael O’Hanlon, director of research at the Brookings Institution, also feels that the US government needs to pay better attention to the manner in which it funds federal agencies. He suggests that supporting research and investing in the latest technological breakthroughs may be the only way to keep ahead of the pack.

Hilariously, while Obama was calling on federal administrations to shore up their systems, the US Navy renewed a contract with Microsoft to keep receiving security update patches for the tech giant’s now obsolete XP operating system.  Yes, despite the fact that Microsoft XP first arrived 14 years ago, and that Microsoft has stopped releasing updates for it to the general public. In June, the US Navy signed a 9 million dollar contract to keep receiving security updates for the software.

Pointing out that the US government is falling prey to outdated practices, Erica McCann, director of federal procurement for the Information Technology Alliance, said that the government needs to change its rules to allow for better investment. As it stands, the General Services Administration requires software to have been on the market for a minimum of two years before being eligible for use by the federal government. This, she said, ought to change,

‘Products for IT get overlapped by new software within six months, never mind the two-year waiting period. These problems are pervasive throughout the government.’

The fact that the Navy is using software from 2001, however, makes her point a little mute: the problem seemingly much worse than she realises.

Also, if you consider the vast sums that it has spent on secret government projects (such as those disclosed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowdon), you start to get a real bizarre picture of how the US has been spending taxpayer dollars.  More preoccupied, it would appear, with spying on its own citizens than of making sure that critical systems are safe from the prying eyes of others. Ridiculous.

Ashton Carter, US Secretary of Defence, has already said that the Pentagon needs to be careful to keep its weaponized computer networks at the forefront of cybersecurity innovations and procedures. Considering the US has an estimated 7100 nuclear warheads under its command, one would imagine that would go without saying, apparently not.

The secretary of defence has also recently spent time trying to draw computer programmers away from higher paid jobs in the private sector, and into the so-called military industrial complex. A seemingly impossible job considering the pay gap between government jobs and those available to top programmers in Silicon Valley.  After all, why work for the devil? Helping to kill people halfway around the world: for less pay? when you could work for Google?

James Lewis, a cybersecurity researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, concurs with Erica McCann. He explains that it can be incredibly tough for tech startups to get involved with government projects due to over-regulation. Which often means waiting months, or even  years, to receive funding from the government,

‘Selling to the federal government is so arcane that many companies opt out, especially start-ups or newer IT companies that are used to a much faster pace.  Funding for start-ups runs into problems over who owns the intellectual property. [Intellectual property] is the single biggest asset for most startups and federal rules can put it at risk, making it unattractive to do business with the U.S. government.’


Ray Walsh I am a freelance journalist and blogger from England. I am highly interested in politics and in particular the subject of IR and I am an advocate for freedom of speech, equality and personal privacy. On a more personal level I like to stay active, love snowboarding, swimming and cycling, enjoy seafood and love to listen to trap music.

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