Putting political divisions and affiliations aside, the government partially shutting down for the third time over the last year is extremely worrisome, particularly when considering its impact on the nation’s cybersecurity priorities. Unlike the government, our nation’s enemies don’t “shut down.” When our nation’s cyber centers are not actively monitoring and protecting our most valuable assets and critical infrastructure, threats magnify and vulnerabilities become further exposed.
While Republicans and Democrats continue to butt heads over border security, the vital agencies tasked with properly safeguarding our nation from our adversaries are stuck in operational limbo. Without this protection in full force acting around the clock, serious extraneous threats to government agencies and private businesses can thrive. This shutdown, now into its fourth week, has crippled key U.S. agencies, most notably the Department of Homeland Security, imperiling our nation’s cybersecurity defenses.
Consider the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which has seen nearly 37 percent of its staff furloughed. This agency leads efforts to protect and defend critical infrastructure, as it pertains to industries as varied as energy, finance, food and agriculture, transportation and defense.
As defined in the 2001 Patriot Act, critical infrastructure is such that, “the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters.” In the interest of national security, we simply cannot tolerate prolonged vulnerability in these areas.
Employees who are considered “essential” are still on the job, but the loss of supporting staff could prove to be costly, in both the short and long term. More immediately, the shutdown places a greater burden on the employees deemed essential enough to stick around. These employees are tasked with both longer hours and expanded responsibilities, leading to a higher risk of critical oversight and mission failure, as weary agents find themselves increasingly stretched beyond their capabilities.
The long-term effects, however, are quite frankly, far more alarming. There’s a serious possibility our brightest minds in cybersecurity will consider moving to the private sector following a shutdown of this magnitude. Even ignoring that the private sector pays better, furloughed staff are likely to reconsider just how valued they are in their current roles. After the 2013 shutdown, a significant segment of the intelligence community left their posts for the relative stability of corporate America. The current shutdown bears those risks as well. A loss of critical personnel could result in institutional failure far beyond the present shutdown, leading to cascading security deterioration.
This shutdown has farther-reaching effects for the federal government to attract talent in the form of recent college grads or those interested in transitioning from the private sector. The stability of government was once viewed as a guarantee compared to the private sector, but work could incentivize workers to take their talents to the private sector.
The IRS in particular is extremely vulnerable, putting America’s private sector and your average taxpayer directly in the cross-hairs. The shutdown has come at the worst time of the year, as the holidays and the post-holiday season tend to have the highest rates for cybercrime. In 2018, the IRS reported a 60 percent increase in email scams. Meanwhile, as the IRS furloughed much of its staff as well, cyber criminals are likely to ramp up their activity even more.
Though the agency has stated it will recall a “significant portion” of its personnel to work without pay, it has also indicated there will be a lack of support for much beyond essential service. There’s no doubt cybercriminals will see this as a lucrative opportunity. With tax season on the horizon, the gap in oversight will feed directly into cyber criminals’ playing the field, undoubtedly resulting in escalating financial losses due to tax identity theft and refund fraud.
Cyberwarfare is no longer some distant afterthought, practiced and discussed by a niche group of experts in a back room. Cyberwarfare has taken center stage on the virtual battlefield. Geopolitical adversaries such as North Korea, Russia, Iran and China rely on cyber as their most agile and dangerous weapon against the United States. These hostile nation-states salivate at the idea of a prolonged government shutdown.
From Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election to Chinese state cybercriminals breaching Marriott Hotels, the necessity to protect our national cybersecurity has never been more explicit.
If our government doesn’t resolve this dilemma quickly, America’s cybersecurity will undoubtedly suffer serious deterioration, inevitably endangering the lives and safety of citizens across the nation. This issue goes far beyond partisan politics, yet needs both parties to come to a consensus immediately. Time is not on our side.