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White House Publishes Cyber Security Plans

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Obama administration sets out how to protect critical infrastructure, and calls for a data breach notification law

The Obama administration has unveiled a cyber-security plan to provide protection for critical infrastructure, data-breach-notification laws and cyber-defense.

The White House proposal addresses how to protect critical infrastructure, including electric grids, financial systems and transportation networks, from cyber-attackers. The Department of Homeland Security would take the lead role in working with states and businesses to respond to cyber-attacks and provide immunity to organizations that share cyber-security information, according to a fact sheet posted May 12 on the White House blog.

Balancing security with a hands-off approach

The administration struck a balance between securing critical infrastructure and not making decisions for the companies who actually own and operate the infrastructure. Companies will retain a lot of authority to draw up their own cyber-security plans and implement them. The plan summaries have to be publicised and if it doesn’t seem comprehensive enough, DHS can modify it, according to the proposal.

“Fundamentally, this proposal strikes a critical balance between maintaining the government’s role and providing industry with the capacity to innovatively tackle threats to national cyber-security,” said White House cyber-security coordinator Howard Schmidt.

Companies would also be required to report any “significant cyber-security incident” to DHS. The White House asked for legislation that would give Homeland Security a much more active role in working with the private sector. The lack of a “clear statutory framework” describing the role DHS could play has “slowed the ability” of the department to help organisations looking for help dealing with cyber-security, according to the White House.

DHS would have “enhanced authority” over certain “key” infrastructure, but the proposals did not specify how the agency would define which companies would be classified as critical infrastructure and core critical infrastructure. Those companies will be under additional regulatory oversight to ensure they are implementing proper security measures.

The Senate and the White House are on the “same track” on cyber-security, according to a statement issued jointly by Senators. Joe Lieberman, Susan Collins and Tom Carper. “We both recognise that the government and the private sector must work together to secure our nation’s most critical infrastructure, for example, our energy, water, financial, telecommunications and transportation systems,” according to the Senators.

Companies that fail to scrub personal identifying information from data shared with the government will face civil penalties. The administration would be able to publicly call out any company that failed to secure its networks adequately.

More details needed

While it was a step in the right direction, “the proposal would benefit from some specifics. Actually, a lot more specifics,” Rob Rachwald, director of security for Imperva, wrote on the company blog. There were no specific, actionable steps to protect data, intellectual property and infrastructure, Rachwald said.

President Obama also called for a federal data-breach-notification law. Currently, organisations have to negotiate “a patchwork of 47 state laws” after a data breach.

The White House proposal also sought to clarify penalties for computer crimes and set minimum prison terms for breaching critical systems.

“While I’m pleased to see the White House devoting time and energy to this increasingly critical issue, I have yet to see what we most need — enforceable laws with realistic penalties,” Paul Henry, a security and forensic analyst at Lumension, told eWEEK.

The Internet “kill switch” that popped up in conversations earlier this year and defense-related policies were not included anywhere in the proposal. It also does not include provisions for an Office of Cyberspace with a director confirmed by the Senate. The office has been proposed in several bills currently circulating in Congress.

“While the proposal addresses a number of cyber-security vulnerabilities, it does not appear to adequately delineate the authority of the federal government to act in coordination with the private sector during a major cyber-attack,” said Rob Strayer, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Preparedness Group.

The proposals called for strengthening the FISMA (Federal Information Security Management Act), which defines how the federal government defends its networks. The modified FISMA would authorize DHS to deploy an active monitoring and defense program government-wide, expand its hiring authority to directly hire the cyber-security specialists and temporarily exchange experts with the private sector.

Rachwald suggested that PCI-DSS (PCI Data Security Standard) regulations, or something similar, should be included in the proposal to help improve data security. “We’ve seen states and private industry succeed with a specific approach, why ignore it?” Rachwald wrote.

Lawmakers will be looking at Sen. Reid’s bill and debating the differences between the bill and administration’s proposal in the days ahead. The cyber-security law will be enacted only if the Senate bill passes, and if the House votes on a comparable bill. Reid and other lawmakers have been waiting for this proposal since last July.