Homeland Security’s Cyber Chief Expands Silicon Valley Footprint

  • Department is growing California office to about 20 staffers
  • 14 companies providing government with cyberthreat reports

Phyllis Schneck.

Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security plans to expand its Silicon Valley office to a staff of about 20 as the strained relationship between the government and technology companies over encryption plays out in public and in courtrooms.

The expanded presence will let the department, which oversees everything from responding to domestic terrorism to aviation and border security, relocate some of its experts in critical infrastructure who are already based in California as well as hire additional cybertechnology personnel, Phyllis Schneck, the DHS deputy under secretary for cybersecurity and communications, said in an interview Tuesday.

QuickTake Cybersecurity

A bigger footprint and better relationships with technology companies is needed to bridge the language and culture gap that plagues tech companies and bureaucratic federal agencies, Schneck said. It comes in the wake of a dispute between Apple Inc. and the FBI over accessing data on locked iPhones that fueled distrust among many technology companies over the government’s power.

‘Not About a Phone’

"When you’re a huge global company, it’s hard to say to your” customers and manufacturers overseas “that you do work with the U.S. government in this environment," she said. "However, there’s never been a more urgent time to be able to use the expertise, the innovation and the data that comes from the private sector."

A larger discussion is needed about how government approaches new technology that should include the private sector, said Schneck, a former executive at McAfee Inc., which is now part of the Intel Security Group at Intel Corp.

"It’s not about encryption, it’s not about a phone,” said Schneck, who has a doctorate in computer science from the Georgia Institute of Technology. “It’s about technology for which we have not planned and could never have imagined and have no policy that governs how we use, enjoy and protect it."

Schneck is responsible for coordinating the federal response to a large-scale cyber attack. She cited a range of threats from malware, including from hackers holding data hostage for payments and searching for weaknesses in critical infrastructure.

So far, Schneck said 14 companies have signed up to provide "cyberthreat indicators" as part of an automated information-sharing program which began in March at DHS’s National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center in Arlington, Virginia. To address concerns that personal data could be included, a "human will ferret out" fields in the submissions that could contain private information before sending the threat reports into the system, Schneck said.

The move makes DHS the latest government agency seeking to mine more of Silicon Valley’s expertise and personnel. Defense Secretary Ash Carter last week announced a leadership overhaul at the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit (Experimental), or DIUx, in Palo Alto.

Schneck said the government has constraints to ensure transparency , but has worked to "cut down a lot of red tape." Though after several years in the federal government, the former tech executive acknowledged, "I still don’t know all my acronyms."

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