New White House National Security Strategy Calls For Risk-Informed Responses To Cyber Threats

The White House’s new national security strategy calls for adopting a risk-informed approach to cyber responses needed to address new domain threats from nation-state adversaries, including Russia and China, and protect critical infrastructure from coordinated attacks.

President Trump delivered a speech Monday following the release of his administration’s strategy and cited the need for a new emphasis on cyber operations to thwart attacks to critical infrastructure and federal networks, as well as curbing attempts at intellectual property theft.iStock Cyber Lock

“We will develop new ways to counter those who use new domains, such as cyber and social media, to attack our nation or threaten our society,” Trump said. “This strategy includes plans to counter modern threats such as cyber and electromagnetic attacks.”

The new document points to China, Iran, North Korea and Russia as nation-state adversaries growing their cyber capabilities and developing new strategies for information warfare.

The strategy warns of the North Korean regime’s rapid acceleration of cyber programs, as well as the Iranian government’s exploration intelligence capabilities and malicious cyber activities. Both nations are cited for their development of electromagnetic tools to disrupt critical infrastructure sectors.

“Malicious state and non-state actors use cyber attacks for extortion, information warfare, disinformation, and more. Such attacks have the capability to harm large numbers of people and institutions with comparatively minimal investment and a troubling degree of deniability,” the White House writes in its new strategy. “These attacks can undermine faith and confidence in democratic institutions and the global economic system.”

An emphasis is placed on the possibility of continued intellectual property theft by state-backed actors from China, despite previous agreements to protect U.S. industry from information loss.

The strategy calls on protecting the “national security innovation base” from nation-state competitors, by investing in cyber capabilities that deter hacking of industry networks from IP theft.

Russia is also singled out for its offensive cyber efforts to conduct interference operations and online influence campaigns, but the new document does not specifically reference its 2016 election meddling.

Cyber policy officials see the new strategy as reaffirming a commitment to defending against all domain threats, while not necessarily breaking ground on new strategic options.

“It’s not bad, although there are some disconnects. A lot of hobbyhorses, like [electromagnetic pulse]. The ‘layered defenses’ section look like an afterthought. Intellectual property theft is last year’s threat. In any case, it’s not what you say in the strategy it’s what you do to implement it,” James Lewis, Center for Strategic & International Studies senior vice president, told Defense Daily.

Michael Daniel, former Obama administration cyber lead and current president of the Cyber Threat Alliance, believes the new strategy focuses more on a shift in tone than strategy.

The latest strategy affirms similar themes to those pursued in the previous administration, including raising the level of cyber security across the federal government critical infrastructure, focusing on disrupting adversaries’ malicious cyber activity and improving attack response, according to Daniel.

“You can see these same themes in the Trump administration national security strategy.  So in that sense there is a fair amount of continuity,” Daniel told Defense Daily. “I think the main difference is in tone: there is a greater emphasis on imposing costs on our adversaries.   However,  I think it’s more a matter of degree than a complete break. There’s also a slightly less internationalist bent and a greater emphasis on bilateral agreements.”

The new strategy prioritizes cyber risk assessments for critical infrastructure, and steps to ensure the resiliency of energy, banking, communications and transportation networks. The plan calls for modernizing IT and sharing best practices for protecting systems.

Critical infrastructure will rely on improved information sharing and a layered defense strategy to mitigate vulnerabilities before they can be exploited. The administration says it will work with industry partners to assess information needs, such as classification levels, to reduce information sharing barriers.

The new national security strategy follows the White House’s announcement of impending national cyber strategy (Defense Daily, Nov. 9) and the release of a document detailing its software vulnerability disclosure process (Defense Daily, Nov. 15).

A White House official confirmed with Defense Daily that the administration is still working on finalizing the cyber strategy, despite detailing cyber priorities in its national security document.

“Cyber attacks have become a key feature of modern conflict,” the White House writes in its strategy. “The United States will deter, defend, and when necessary defeat malicious actors who use cyberspace capabilities against the United States.”

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