Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID stimulus plan has $10 billion for cybersecurity and IT hidden at the end — and experts say it's critical for the nation's recovery

  • Biden's massive $1.9 trillion rescue package, released Thursday night, includes roughly $10 billion for cybersecurity and IT modernization, and experts say it shows that the new administration sees technology as inextricably tied to the country's future.
  • The new administration's $10 billion includes $300 million for IT projects, and $200 million for the US Digital Service, the Obama-era tech "startup" staffed by many Silicon Valley alums. 
  • In the wake of the SolarWinds attack, dedicated cybersecurity funding was a necessary step, one expert said, especially as COVID vaccine efforts will collect massive amounts of Americans' personal data.
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On Thursday night, the Biden-Harris administration released plans for a nearly $2 trillion spending package for pandemic relief and economic recovery. Hidden at the very bottom of the plan, the new administration allocated more than $10 billion to various IT modernization and cybersecurity initiatives.

Experts say it's another sign of President-elect Biden's technology focus, especially when it comes to cybersecurity and updating IT at federal agencies. There had been early signs that Biden would put more funding toward those initiatives, but Thursday's plan was the new administration's first real stake in the ground — and a massive one at that.

The allocations underscore how the new administration sees technology as inextricably tied to the country's future, Daniel Castro, vice president of the nonprofit think-tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and a former IT analyst at the Government Accountability Office, told Insider. 

"It's a plan that is about COVID relief," Castro said, "But they still recognize that part of this, too, depends on having the IT infrastructure to make it work."

What's in the $10 billion and what will it do?

Described by the Biden-Harris transition team as the "most ambitious effort ever to modernize and secure federal IT and networks," the $10 billion allows for buying more IT and will "certainly produce some new IT contracts," according to Steve Kelman, a professor of public management at the Harvard Kennedy School and a former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in the Clinton administration. That means that the companies playing for public sector business, like Salesforce, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon, have a bigger pie to fight over.

The funding is split among the General Services Administration, hiring for the United States Digital Service (USDS) and the chief information security officer's office, and the Technology Modernization Fund.

Obama-era tech lessons may have led to the dedicated allocation, Castro said. 

"Obviously the Biden administration is bringing a lot of people from the Obama administration, and they learned the lessons from that you can have everything, writing policy, and fail if execution of technology fails," he said.

$300 million of the $10 billion tech spend is allocated to advancing the GSA's "secure IT projects," and $200 million is for shoring up USDS, the Obama-era tech "startup" staffed by many Silicon Valley alums, with cybersecurity and engineering experts.

$9 billion — the biggest chunk of the dedicated tech spend — is for expanding the Technology Modernization Fund's cybersecurity and IT services. It's the largest amount ever dedicated to the funding vehicle created by Obama in 2016 to jumpstart IT projects, and Castro described the funding as a "huge win" for government agencies. 

"We started to see agencies put forth proposals on modernizing their systems," he said. "Oftentimes they're getting rid of legacy systems, updating back office, front office issues. But with those updates you get security benefits as well, so I think it's a good move to address two things at the same time."

Biden's plan also calls for changing the fund's reimbursement structure, which currently requires agencies to pay back what they use for IT projects. While some experts have criticized the repayment model as a barrier to success, Castro cautioned against the change: He believes that removing the reimbursement structure, even if intended to move funds quickly, could end up "lowering the bar on what gets approved" because the fund has a robust selection process.

Addressing SolarWinds and COVID cybersecurity challenges

Partially in response to the SolarWinds breach, the plan's last allocation is $690 million for the Cyber Security and Information Security Agency's security monitoring and incident response with new "security and cloud computing services" — presenting yet another opportunity for the major cloud providers to swoop in.

Though Kelman questioned the efficacy of tying pandemic relief to national security because "networks are inherently vulnerable to cyberattack," Castro said the dedicated cybersecurity funding was a necessary step as COVID vaccination efforts will require the collection of massive amounts of Americans' personal data.

"It would certainly look bad to have a major government data breach in that environment," he said. "It's good that it's not left off the agenda."

Still, experts said the funding alone won't solve the many IT modernization and cybersecurity challenges the Biden administration will face, in particular policy questions such as potential retaliation for the SolarWinds attack.

"The SolarWinds breach showed the faults in the system, and so it's not just a question of hiring more staff and spending more money. If you're using SolarWinds, you're using modern systems," Castro said. "The bigger question I think is really going to be, 'Yes, we can throw more money at the problem, but how are actually going to address these big challenges?'"

Biden's spending package needs to be approved by Congress before moving forward, but some Republicans have already criticized the plan's size and scope. Biden aides told The New York Times that the plan's ambitious nature — which, after inflation, is 50% larger than the stimulus under Obama — was spurred by the gravity of the nation's crisis. Top Senate Democrats have signaled support for the plan, which is paid entirely through federal borrowing, and said they'd work to get it through Congress after Biden's inauguration on Wednesday.

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