Cybersecurity

DHS cyber agency to prioritize election security, Chinese threats

The Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) plans to prioritize election security, cybersecurity at federal agencies, and the "persistent threat" posed by China, among its many goals.

The agency laid out its key priorities in a new "strategic intent" document released on Thursday, which CISA Director Christopher Krebs described in the introduction as the "keystone" for the agency.

Among Krebs's operational priorities is addressing Chinese threats to U.S. supply chains and to the rollout of 5G networks, bolstering election security efforts at the state and local level, and protecting the cybersecurity of industrial control systems.

Other priorities are protecting federal networks against cyber attacks, such as ransomware incidents that have increasingly spread across the country, and defending "soft targets" and crowded venues from physical threats.

CISA is the primary agency responsible for assisting state and local governments with securing elections, replacing the former National Protection and Programs Directorate in a law that took effect last year.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said in a statement on Thursday that he was "encouraged to see that Director Krebs has a strategy and a vision to guide CISA at this pivotal time."

"We know that our Nation's banks, hospitals, power plants, election systems, and state and local governments are under constant attack, and CISA must stand ready to help these owners and operators shore up their defenses," Thompson said. "This Strategic Intent document sets forth an ambitious agenda, and I hope to hear more from Director Krebs about how he plans to execute the priorities outlined today, and what resources CISA will need in order to do so."

Krebs, who is the agency's first director, laid out the strategic plan during a speech on Thursday at Auburn University's Center for Cyber and Homeland Security in Auburn, Ala. He emphasized CISA's core mission of "defend today, secure tomorrow."

Krebs noted that he spends "probably 40 to 50 percent" on election security issues, adding that the 2018 midterm elections were secure in large part due to strides forward in securing elections against outside interference in the wake of the 2016 elections.

"I know what the Russians did in 2016, I know what they tried to do in 2018, I need to know what they're going to try to do in 2020," Krebs said.

Former special counsel Robert Mueller's report found that Russian actors hacked into the computer system of the Democratic National Committee, engineered a social media disinformation campaign that favored President Trump and conducted intrusion operations against those working on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

Mueller testified last month on Capitol Hill that he expects the Russians to return and try to interfere during the 2020 elections. 

Another key issue touched on in the strategy is addressing threats from China. Krebs said he has "significant concerns" in regards to Chinese tech companies being involved in the 5G rollout in the U.S., pointing to the Chinese intelligence law that requires companies to assist in the national intelligence work of the Chinese government.

"Why on earth would we put them in a position to control whether our communications systems are up or down?" Krebs said. "That is the threshold issue here."

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