Converged networks challenge Homeland Security

Converging networks and data centers is a challenge but perhaps more so to the folks charged with watching over the nation’s telecommunications and cyber framework.

That’s why the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) needs to quickly address some shortcomings “or risk being unable to efficiently plan for and respond to disruptions to communications infrastructure and the data and applications that reside on this infrastructure, increasing the probability that communications will be unavailable or limited in times of need,” according to a Government Accountability Office report issued today.

At the heart of the problem, the GAO said is the integration of two of the DHS’ prime data center components— the operations center of the National Communications System (NCS) that oversees the communications infrastructure, including voice and data networks—namely, the National Coordination Center Watch (NCC Watch) with the operations center of the National Cyber Security Division (NCSD) that oversees the security of data and applications that use the communications infrastructure—called the US Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT).

The DHS has taken the first of three previously recommend steps toward integrating NCSD and NCS by moving the two centers, NCC Watch and US-CERT, to adjacent office space in November 2007, the GAO stated. This close proximity lets the approximately 41 coordination center and 95 readiness team analysts to, among other things, readily collaborate on planned and ongoing activities, the GAO said.

In addition, the centers have jointly acquired common software tools to identify and share physical, telecommunications, and cyber information related to performing their missions. For example, the centers use one of the tools to develop a joint “morning report” specifying their respective security issues and problems, which is used by the analysts in coordinating responses to any resulting disruptions, the GAO report stated.Still DHS hasn’t organizationally merged or integrated operation centers or completed any of the supporting actions. For example, the department has not hired a project manager, developed common operating procedures, or established progress measures. In addition, according to DHS officials, they have no efforts planned or underway to implement this step.

For its part the DHS, which his the focal point for the security of cyberspace -- including analysis, warning, information sharing, vulnerability reduction, mitigation, and recovery efforts for public and private critical infrastructure information systems -- said that, while it supports further integration of overlapping functions, it does not support organizationally merging the centers at this point and added that the lack of a merger will not impact its ability to respond to incidents. “To the contrary, there is strong evidence that shows that DHS’s ability to respond is negatively impacted by the use of separate centers, rather than a single integrated and merged entity,” the agency said in the report.

Indeed the department has other priorities at the moment. For example DHS officials stated that their efforts have been focused on other initiatives, most notably the government’s recently announced cyber initiative, which is a federal effort to manage the risks associated with the Internet’s nonsecure external connections. Officials from DHS’s Office of Cyber Security and Communications stated that they are in the process of drafting a strategic plan to provide overall direction for the activities of NCS and NCSD, including completing the integration of the centers. However, the plan is in draft and has been so since mid-2007, the GAO noted.

Still, the GAO said overlapping responsibilities for incident response have adversely affected DHS’s ability to prioritize and coordinate incident response activities. For example, private-sector firms have reported that in responding to a critical incident, DHS made time-consuming and duplicative requests for information without identifying how this information would be beneficial in helping respond to the event.

In addition, the DHS-commissioned expert task force on the subject recently reported that without an organizationally integrated center, the department will not have a comprehensive operating picture of the nation’s cyber and communications infrastructure and thus not be able to effectively implement activities necessary to prepare, protect, respond, and recover this infrastructure.   

The GAO went on to state that converged networks pose certain technical challenges. For example, current national programs to provide priority voice services in an emergency are based primarily on voice or traditional telephone networks, which are circuit-switched. Implementing these networks on packet-switched networks is difficult because there is no uniformly accepted standard for providing priority service on a packet-switched network. Also, the Internet-based protocols used on packet-switched networks have vulnerabilities and in certain cases, packet-switched networks may be unreliable for emergency communications due to delays in transmission and loss of packets, the GAO said. 

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