DHS cyber chief defends expansion of criticized software

The Department of Homeland Security's top cyber official on Thursday defended the White House’s proposal to expand her agency's main cyber defense system despite criticism the program is already over-cost and outdated.

“We are definitely ready,” said Phyllis Schneck, who heads the DHS’s cyber division, during a New America Foundation panel.

ADVERTISEMENT
Schneck’s remarks came days after the White House issued a sweeping plan to inject billions of extra dollars into federal cybersecurity funding, establish a new senior federal cyber official and create a presidential commission on cyber to establish a long-term road map.

The proposal also requested funding to expand the DHS’s Einstein program, which has served as the government’s main shield from hackers.

The White House plan, Schneck said, will “enable us to go faster, go bigger.”

The $6 billion program has been plagued by long-standing criticism from security experts who describe Einstein as behind-the-times and unnecessarily expensive.

A recent government report that concluded Einstein was largely ineffective at thwarting hackers only bolstered these critiques. It explained that Einstein could only detect known cyber threats and lacked the ability to suss out sophisticated hackers.

Schneck, a former executive at security firm McAfee, did not dispute that Einstein has long been an archaic program.

She recalled coming to DHS roughly two and a half years ago. Schneck’s new colleagues asked her to review Einstein, cautioning her that some of the technology was 10 years old.

“So I studied it for a long time,” Schneck said.

“That technology,” she told her DHS co-workers, “is not 10 years old. In fact it’s about 25 years old.”

Nonetheless, Schneck insisted the agency has come a long way since then.

Einstein has been rolled out in phases, she said, echoing an argument other officials, including DHS head Jeh Johnson, have made recently.

These first steps have been “foundational,” she said, making Einstein “a vital program.”

The digital defense software can now detect known cyber threats on all government networks, and block them from 50 percent of networks, up from 25 percent a year ago.

And with the White House’s proposed funding, the intrusion-blocking software will soon cover the entire government, according to the administration.

From there, the DHS will be able to add on leading private sector cyber tools to help the system detect unknown hackers, Schneck said.

Schneck described it as “going from vaccines” to “building an immune system.”

The agency recently established a Silicon Valley office in an effort to strengthen ties with the country’s tech hub.

Schneck said she launched the agency’s “first operational person” in the office last Tuesday.