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DHS cyber division taking shape, despite concerns about waning influence

Amit Yoran will take the helm later this month

By Dan Verton
October 1, 2003 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- A principal adviser to the new head of the Department of Homeland Security's National Cyber Security Division (NCSD) has reiterated that the division and its industry outreach program remain key players at the DHS and that it has a direct line to senior officials, including Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and President Bush.
Speaking here at the Digital Security Conference, Sallie McDonald, the DHS's senior executive responsible for outreach and awareness efforts, said yesterday that the NCSD "is properly placed within the department" and has been described by Ridge as part of the "heartbeat of the agency."
The conference was sponsored by Washtenaw Community College and the Walsh College Information Assurance Center.
McDonald's comments follow recurring criticism from experts and former administration officials who fear that the current cybersecurity leadership has been buried too deep within the DHS bureacracy to be effective. Critics fear that the agency may have lost some of its influence with the departure this year of Richard Clarke, the former chairman of the President's Critical Infrastructure Protection Board and the nation's first de facto cybersecurity czar.
Those critics, including Clarke, have said repeatedly that not having the ear of the president or Ridge could spell the loss of momentum on the public/private cybersecurity partnership agenda.
A spokesman for the DHS said Amit Yoran, whose last day of official employment at Symantec Corp. was yesterday, will take the helm at the NCSD during the last week of this month (see story). McDonald praised Yoran, calling him the right person for the right job at the right time.
McDonald said the NCSD is now focused on reducing vulnerabilities throughout the nation's critical infrastructures, establishing a national response center at the newly formed US-CERT at Carnegie Mellon University (see story), and developing a cybersecurity outreach program targeted at small businesses and home users as well as large companies.
The NCSD is also taking the lead on a cybersituation awareness project that can conduct near-real-time analysis of incident data nationwide, said McDonald. The division is currently working with SRI International, Symantec and Computer Associates International Inc. to develop an automated capability that would enable data to be shared immediately with various private-sector-run Information Sharing and Analysis Centers. The research and development effort includes plans to build a nonproprietary system that would allow any organization in the nation, regardless of IT infrastructure, to feed data into the incident analysis system.
"We will be deploying this in the federal sector starting at the US-CERT first so we can see in real time what is happeningacross the nation," McDonald said.
She also hinted at a series of "big announcements" the DHS may make in the next few months regarding its work with Internet service providers on possibly offering users free firewalls. That move would be part of an effort to simplify the security procedures for small businesses that don't have large corporate IT staffs.

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