Justice Department struggles with cybersecurity

Every agency within the U.S. government is now well aware of the danger posed by cybercriminals and other hackers, and therefore the importance of cybersecurity. After all, there have been a number of well-publicized breaches in recent months, including attacks on both the State Department and White House networks. And while such high-value targets are certainly at greater risk than other agencies, the fact of the matter is that every government department possesses information that will be useful for some external organization or another. 

Naturally enough, this growing threat has caused the Justice Department to develop a powerful interest in the realm of cybersecurity. However, as a recent memo distributed by Michael Horowitz, the department's inspector general, made clear, the Justice Department continues to struggle in this area.

Cybersecurity challenges
As NextGov noted, the Justice Department has established major, ambitious plans to improve its cybersecurity posturing going forward. To this end, the agency has requested significant amounts of funding and staffing specifically to devote to the issue of cybersecurity. However, the memo indicated that the results of these efforts have been mixed at best.

"This increasing proliferation of cybersecurity events creates pressing challenges for the department to properly coordinate its cyber resources to work in concert toward the same goal, and to ensure that information related to cyber threats is shared and disseminated in an appropriate manner," the memo noted. 

The memo identified the seven most pressing concerns for the Justice Department to address in coming months. Of these, "enhancing cybersecurity in an era of ever-increasing threats" was noted to be one of the "three critical areas that will continue to occupy much of the Department's attention and require its sustained focus for the foreseeable future." 

Preventative efforts
The DOJ memo highlighted a number of steps the department can and should take in this area. As mentioned previously, funding is a major factor. Horowitz pointed out that the department requested $722 million for its FY 2015 budget for purposes of confronting computer intrusions and other cybercrimes. This represented a $7.6 million increase year-over-year. On the broader issue of cybersecurity, the DOJ has asked for $100.2 million to address rapidly evolving threats. Of this, the vast majority has gone toward the FBI's Next Generation Cyber Initiative. 

Horowitz also emphasized that the Justice Department should do more to work with the private sector. Specifically, he asserted that the department should share information with companies and other organizations in order to allow them to better defend themselves against cybersecurity threats. 

Finally, the memo addressed the issue of insider threats. 

"As recent events have shown, employees and contractors who have access to government computer systems and information in order to do their work, may pose serious security risks from within," Horowitz wrote.

Notably, a recent Associated Press study determined that federal employees and contractors were responsible for more than half of all reported federal cyberincidents since 2010. In many cases, these breaches were not the result of malicious intent, but rather carelessness or ignorance of safe cybersecurity practices. This despite the fact that the federal government as a whole spends $10 billion annually to protect sensitive data from cyberthreats.

Course correction
All of these factors suggest that while the Department of Justice, and federal government as a whole, are taking cybersecurity seriously, their efforts have left something to be desired. More funding may help, but only when combined with an improved strategy.

In regard to insider threats, the ideal solution is likely superior training and education. By focusing on these areas, the DOJ and other agencies can significantly reduce the chances that employees will inadvertently create opportunities for cyberattackers to gain access to sensitive federal information.

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