Cybersecurity’s “Fiscal Cliff”

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Regardless of how the profession has evolved, or what the specific challenges are facing your sector, one thing has remained constant in the information security field for some time: the demand for qualified professionals has generated nearly full employment for the industry. This comes at a time when newcomers in the field can expect to earn near six-figure salaries while governments pour increasing investment into the space.

To quote Ernie McCracken in the Farrelly brothers comedy, Kingpin, we seem to be “on a gravy train with biscuit wheels”. Well, Big Ern, this train appears to be on a collision course with a listless locomotive driven by members of the US Congress.

What I’m talking about, of course, is the so-called “fiscal cliff” facing the US government – an automatically triggered combination of spending cuts (officially known as ‘sequestration’) and revenue increases set to take effect Jan. 1, 2013. That is, unless Congress can come to a larger comprehensive spending agreement in the interim. Most economists foretell a double-dip recession for the world’s largest economy if a deal is not reached, and with the US having gone years without a comprehensive budget agreement, the prospects for such are on life support.

The issue is not just one for the US to grapple with, as the economic consequences of these cuts will be far reaching. They certainly have potential to be felt in the cybersecurity world.

According to the most recent (ISC)² Global Information Security Workforce Study, the US is home to about 40% of all infosec professionals. The potential exists for severe cuts in DoD and DHS cybersecurity spending – both of which were originally promised significant increases over the next few years. This has knock-on effects for the technology vendors, security analysts, and all those who owe their employment – one way or another – to public sector investments.

Education spending is also poised for cuts under the current plan. Closing that infosec skills gap becomes even more difficult under this scenario when taken in the context of a rapidly developing technology landscape and escalating tuition costs.

Then there are the unintended economic consequences, many of which are easy enough to foresee. If the budget does go off the cliff, then the government will likely take another credit rating hit, making borrowing more expensive. This, in turn, increases the deficit rather than shrinking it, puts people in the unemployment line, and threatens to stymie economic growth overall. The scenario creates more economic uncertainty, which is the undisputed enemy of business investment – whether it be in human capital or otherwise. Cybersecurity spending will remain among the priorities, if experts are correct, but overall investment growth – by necessity – will be dialled back.

As I write this, it appears that there is some – albeit limited – optimism for a balanced, bi-partisan budget deal. For the sake of the economy, and our industry, let’s hope this is the case.

Many in Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, agree that spending cuts are a necessary part of any effective deal. Some are even signalling a willingness to back down from lobbyist Grover Norquist’s ‘no new taxes pledge’ signed by more than 95% of congressional Republicans, which serves as a yoke weighing down the negotiations. Let me make this clear: I don’t like paying taxes as much as the next person. Further, being a humble journalist, the taxes I pay will always be far dearer to me than any venture capitalist, CEO, or University of Chicago law professor-turned-president. Our social contract, however, demands we make sensible compromises and that – in exchange for payments to the state – we receive in return reasonable public services and societal investments.

Historian Shelby Foote once said that Americans’ ability to compromise was a foundation of their national character. “Americans like to think of themselves as uncompromising”, he mused. “Our true genius is in compromise – our whole government is founded on it”.

Who among the leadership will exhibit bravery in the face of calamity, and nurse the necessary compromises that avoid a crisis? If Americans’ true genius is indeed in forging compromise, then there’s a train wreck in the works waiting for its own Casey Jones-type hero.

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