Democratic think tank: cybercrime enforcement lacks attention, money and resources

Ever since Joe Biden became president elect, experts in cybersecurity and other fields have rushed to offer their guidance and influence his agenda come January.

The latest example comes from a new report from Democratic think tank Third Way, which argues that the United States “faces an unrelenting cybercrime wave that affects nearly every sector of the American economy and threatens U.S. security.” The challenge, the report claims, is fueled in part by an inability to meaningfully enforce cybercrime laws within the United States and across international borders.

Whether it’s state-sponsored espionage, ransomware, intellectual property theft or targeting seniors, security incidents are exploding across the globe, with few bad actors being caught or brought to justice. Many cybercriminal groups operate in countries like Russia or China, which often decline to cooperate with the U.S. on enforcement or extradition matters. Other criminal groups or individuals also sometimes moonlight as government sponsored hackers, blurring the line between state and non-state activity.

Those problems have largely worsened this past year as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed many workers to work from less-secure home set ups and people are spending more time online.

One finding from the report that underscores just how rampant cybercrime has become: for every thousand reported cyber incidents, only three ever result in an arrest.

“This is a substantial cyber enforcement gap, and this is a crime for which perpetrators feel no consequence,” write authors Allison Peters, deputy director of Third Way’s National Security and Cyber Enforcement Initiative and Michael Garcia, a senior policy fellow.

Polling shows a clear consensus desire from the public that the U.S. government should place a higher priority on cracking down on cybercrime. This concern is particularly pronounced among older Americans, a constituency that Biden courted fastidiously during the primary and general elections.

Third Way compiled a bipartisan group of former government officials, experts and industry to provide a roadmap to Biden’s team for how to address these concerns.

Among their recommendations: the U.S. government should shift away from its “over-emphasized and -resourced military responses” by agencies like U.S. Cyber Command that are designed to disrupt nation-state hacking groups and focus more on ensuring law enforcement agencies have the people, budget and mandates they need to tackle broader cybercrime that affects a much broader swath of consumers.

“America’s domestic law enforcement has not received the level of resources, training, and focus necessary to sufficiently identify, deter, and punish offenders, particularly non-state actors,” the report states.

Among dozens of recommendations, Third Way calls for the establishment of a 30-person White House office and non-Senate confirmed leader – similar to the now defunct cyber coordinator position --  to set strategic direction for efforts to combat cybercrime, better data channels and uniform metrics around cybercrime incidents, clarify the role of different law enforcement organizations in going after digital crimes, and push to build criminal justice capacity building in nations where cybercrime investigators aren’t receiving timely assistance.

This new White House office would collaborate with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to identify gaps in the collection and sharing of threat intelligence to the private sector and other stakeholders. They should also have clear goals to measurably reduce the economic impact of cybercrime on the U.S. economy within the first three to six months of a new administration.

Threat intelligence sharing between the federal government and industry can be something of a mixed bag. Many agencies like the FBI, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the National Security Agency routinely share information and intelligence about the latest cyber threats with companies, critical infrastructure and state and local government. However, companies rarely share information back with the government and some complain that the intelligence they do receive from some channels, like the Automated Indicator Sharing program, are not helpful and lack actionable context.

Chris Painter, formerly State Department’s top cyber diplomat and a member of the working group that informed Third Way’s report, told the Center for Strategic and International Studies in a separate interview this week that cybersecurity policy and enforcement has been badly fragmentated under the Trump administration, something that have made it harder to confront countries like Russia and China and put international pressure on them to hold cybercriminals accountable. That could continue to be the case as long as the federal government lacks a central coordinator and cyber issues are siloed away from other foreign policy and national security initiatives.

“You’ve got to stop treating cyber as this boutique, separate issue,” said Painter. “This has to be part of our core…overall strategy and the more we can integrate cyber into that and not think of it as just as separate thing, the more important it is.”

Derek B. Johnson

Derek is a senior editor and reporter at SC Media, where he has spent the past three years providing award-winning coverage of cybersecurity news across the public and private sectors. Prior to that, he was a senior reporter covering cybersecurity policy at Federal Computer Week. Derek has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from Hofstra University in New York and a master’s degree in public policy from George Mason University in Virginia.

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