SAN FRANCISCO -- Endorsing a viewpoint that's been gaining currency in the security industry, President Obama's acting senior director for cyberspace Wednesday called for a more direct White House role in coordinating national cybersecurity efforts.
Melissa Hathaway, who just completed a 60-day review of the government's cybsersecurity preparedness at the president's behest, said that while cybersecurity needs to be a shared private and public sector effort, the task of leading it "is the fundamental responsibility of our government."
In arguing for a bigger White House role, Hathaway said the government's responsibility "transcends" the purviews of individual departments and agencies, none of which has a broad enough perspective to match the "sweep of the challenges."
"Protecting cyberspace requires strong vision and leadership and will require changes in policy, technology, education, and perhaps law," she said.
Hathaway is a former Bush administration aide who has been working as a cybercoordination executive for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. She headed a multiagency group called the National Cyber Study Group that was instrumental in developing the Comprehensive National CyberSecurity Initiative which was approved by former President George W. Bush early last year.
In February, Obama asked her to conduct a review of federal cybersecurity programs to see what needed to be done to better align them with the threats they are designed to mitigate. She completed the review last Friday and her report was handed over to the president. It isn't known what if any recommendations might result from it.
Speaking at the RSA conference, Hathaway said that what she was offering was only a preview of what's contained in the report.
Based on her review, it's clear that the federal government is not "organized appropriately" to address threats in cyberspace, Hathaway said. Responsibilities for cyberspace are scattered across too many departments, many with overlapping missions and authorities.
"We need an agreed way forward based on common understanding and acceptance of the problem," she said.
Hathaway also stressed the need for greater collaboration between the private and public sector on cybersecurity matters because such a large portion of the critical infrastructure is owned by private companies.
"The public and private sector's interests are intertwined with a shared responsibility for ensuring a secure, reliable infrastructure upon which businesses and government services depend," she said. Going forward, the U.S. also needs to find a way to collaborate with other countries to secure cyberspace effectively, she said.
Though there were no surprises in Hathaway's speech, her remarks add to the growing chorus of voices calling for a substantial overhaul of federal cybersecurity practices. In December, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) delivered a set of cybersecurity recommendations to the president, many of which are identical to those being suggested by Hathaway.
Two lawmakers, Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va) introduced legislation seeking to give the federal government sweeping new authority to develop and enforce cybersecurity policies across the government and the private sector. Among the provisions in the bill is one that would give the president the authority to disconnect government or private entities from the Internet if necessary for national security purposes. A companion bill seeks to create a new cybersecurity office within the White House.
In addition to such efforts, there is also a move to create a new military cybercommand under the control of the Pentagon for addressing cyberthreats against military networks and systems.
Such moves are seen as signals of the heightened concern among lawmakers and those within the security community about the scale of cyberthreats facing the nation. The concerns have been heightened by news of a reported compromise of the U.S. electric grid by foreign cyberspies and the theft of terabytes of data relating to an advanced fighter aircraft under development by the military.
What's crucial now is for government to act on these recommendations, said Tom Kellerman, vice president of security awareness at Core Security Technologies in Boston and a member of the CSIS committee that prepared the cybersecurity recommendations for the president.
"Leadership from within the White House is paramount to the success of the national campaign against cybercrime and espionage," Kellerman said.
He also said it would make sense to confirm Hathaway's role as senior director for cyberspace and vest her with the authority needed to enforce cybersecurity practices across the government and the private sector.
"Hathway called this a marathon," Kellerman said. "It's very important that they not change runners," in the middle of it.