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Why we need a civilian cybersecurity reserve

Cyberattacks are wreaking havoc on government agencies. The U.S. Marshal Service was recently hacked, the agency’s second significant data breach in recent years. And in October, two federal agencies were infiltrated by remote monitoring software.

These breaches are just a few of the many cybersecurity failures recently reported across the government. In the first half of 2022 alone, there were reportedly 2.75 billion malware attacks, with more than 270,000 never-before-seen variants. This problem is widespread and growing more difficult to combat daily.

Luckily, the House of Representatives is considering a bill to bolster America’s depleted cybersecurity defense capabilities by marshaling a civilian reserve.

In January, Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., and Rep. Tony Gonzalez, R-Texas, introduced the National Digital Reserve Corps Act. This bill would appropriate $30 million annually until 2025 for developing a Digital Reserve Corps, administered by the General Services Administration.

This comes after a defense-oriented cybersecurity reserve pilot program, the Civilian Cyber Security Reserve Act, passed the Senate but died in the House in December. While both pieces of legislation represent a step toward stronger cyber defense capabilities, the National Digital Reserve Corps Act maximizes benefits to civilian reservists and federal technologists while attracting top reserve talent to combat our nation’s most pressing cyber threats.

This bill is our best hope for defending our executive agencies and addressing our severe cybersecurity staff shortage.

The Digital Reserve Corps would be staffed by private-sector technologists working part time to support government cybersecurity defense efforts while maintaining their civilian careers. The bill is specifically designed to appeal to this demographic, requiring that the Department of Labor issue regulations protecting reservists’ civilian jobs while they complete their service commitment.

Under this program, reservists would serve at least 30 days yearly over three years. During that time, they could earn up to $10,000 annually for their service while receiving specialized training, education and certifications. After proper verification, reservists would receive the necessary security clearances to work in the executive agency to which they are assigned.

The accessibility that this bill gives to private-sector technologists creates a compelling model for other reserve programs to follow. The benchmark for service in the Digital Reserve Corps is low relative to other suggested cyber reserve models. Under this program, reserve service would not be limited to those with prior federal service or an active security clearance.

Furthermore, by offering a shorter service commitment and requiring fewer annual service days, the program will appeal to civilian cyber professionals who would otherwise be deterred by a greater time away from their civilian careers.

Executive agencies that encourage bottom-up cyber innovation are best positioned to leverage the talent of their reservists. In addition to bolstering cybersecurity, this model of drawing from civilian talent establishes a more fluid interaction between the private and public sectors, which could increase the likelihood of cross-sector innovation and the development of new technologies.

This is because of the innate structure of a reserve model, wherein reservists integrate with daily government workflows and explore the challenges they are tasked with solving by applying skills they have developed in the private sector, often in isolation from the government cybersecurity scene.

Lawmakers should commit to passing the National Digital Reserve Corps Act. By establishing a lower threshold for service and shorter commitments to attract top civilian talent, the bill provides a new standard for cyber reserve models.

Civilian technologists are the future of cybersecurity reserves. Other areas of government seeking to supplement their capabilities should take note.

Cassandra Shand is a doctoral student researching innovation strategy at the University of Cambridge and a fellow at The Cicero Institute. This commentary was written for


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