Overview and Analysis of PPD-41: US Cyber Incident Coordination

By Frank J. Cilluffo, Sharon L. Cardash
Wednesday, July 27, 2016, 9:23 AM

Hot on the heels of the DNC hack, the White House today released Presidential Policy Directive/PPD-41: United States Cyber Incident Coordination. The Directive clarifies and codifies lines of responsibility as they apply to “significant” cyber incidents, which are defined as a “3” or more on a spectrum of consequences that runs from 0 (e.g., “inconsequential”) through 5 (e.g., “imminent threat to national…stability”).

The framework and architecture specified in the PDD, which will apply irrespective of whether the targeted entity lies in the public or private sector, assigns lead response roles as follows: the Department of Justice will lead the investigative component, the Department of Homeland Security will lead on asset protection, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence will lead intelligence support activities.

In addition, the NSC’s Cyber Response Group will drive national policy coordination, while national operations coordination is to be achieved through a (Cyber) Unified Coordination Group, composed at minimum of “Federal lead agencies for threat response, asset response, and intelligence support.”

The Directive is animated by a handful of key principles including “unity of effort” within government, and “shared responsibility” with partners in the private sector and individuals. The idea is to better safeguard U.S. national interests through enhanced cooperation and coordination within and across sectors, which in turn should render U.S. response activities more robust and more effective.

Conceptually, the Directive mirrors the constructs created to deal with physical threats, including a Response Group to support NSC Principals. As such, the Directive represents another step toward putting government’s own house in order. However the cyber domain cannot be managed by government action alone, no matter how effective it may be. Instead, cyber response may implicate the private sector as well, thereby increasing the complexity of the task.

And, just as government agencies may vary in their cyber sophistication and capabilities, the same is true of businesses: some are more prepared than others and better able to defend themselves. Yet, even the most advanced companies may have difficulty protecting themselves against nation-state adversaries that are intent on stealing their secrets, or worse.

As all entities, governmental and not, grapple with the cyber challenge to generate a more coherent and powerful national response, it may not be necessary to reinvent the wheel so much as to refine it. For instance, the severity scale (0 to 5) predated PPD-41, but the Directive codifies it, along with other practices that propel consistency across government in terms of incident assessment, reporting requirements, process triggers, and operational matters, such as the potential application of various elements of statecraft: political, economic, military, law enforcement, and so on.

The Directive also takes on the important but (to the outside eye) rather dry task of placing bounds on bureaucratic politics and competition, by specifically delineating the lanes and lines to be occupied and led by critical government players such as DHS, the FBI, and the ODNI.

Bottom line: PDD-41 is a good initiative, but the real test will lie in the manner and nature of its implementation. Were the United States to experience a cyber-attack on its grid of the sort suffered in Ukraine, the Directive would surely be triggered and tested. Whether and how the country will respond to the DNC hack however, remains an open question. Moving forward, judicious application of the severity scale should guide U.S. action, with careful attention accorded to the triggering threshold. After all, not all hacks are the same, even when the hacker is.