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Cyberdefense Plan Gets Mixed Reviews

Raises awareness, but critics say it lacks teeth

By Dan Verton
September 23, 2002 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The White House's National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace, released last week in draft form, was applauded by some IT industry executives for its vision. But the ink was barely dry before critics charged that the plan lacks the authority necessary to accomplish real change.

"Anything that could have made a difference was removed at the last minute," said the president of a major security consulting firm who requested anonymity.

While the government got high marks for its effort to raise awareness of security issues and its willingness to take on a leadership role, some private-sector security experts were surprised by the lack of tough enforcement language in the document. In fact, a White House source acknowledged that major changes, such as the removal of "politically sensitive language," were made to the plan in the last 24 hours of preparation.

"What happened here?" asked Wyatt Starnes, CEO of Tripwire Inc., a Portland, Ore.-based global IT security company. "We thought we were going to get something concrete. They probably underestimated the politics."

For example, although the strategy calls on corporate CEOs to establish enterprise security councils to integrate cybersecurity, physical security and privacy into their daily operations, compliance remains voluntary.

Russ Cooper, a security consultant at TruSecure Corp. in Herndon, Va., said he's dissatisfied with the strategy in its current form. Specifically, Cooper said the administration has removed language that would have offered a definition of liability and an assignment of responsibility for Internet security. "It's time the government mandates some action be taken," said Cooper. "I'd like to see ISPs be told that it is illegal to carry identified Internet attack traffic. But I don't see anything similar or at that level in what they're proposing."

James Lewis, director of the Council on Technology and Public Policy at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, agreed that having cybersecurity dependent on voluntary compliance can't bring real change in the long run. "The report has many good ideas, but cybersecurity is too tough a problem for a solely voluntary approach to fix," he said. "Companies will only change their behavior when there are both market forces and legislation that cover security failures."

Despite the disappointment voiced by some, others said the strategy is a key development that demonstrates solid government leadership.

A Good Place to Start

"You have to look at this as a good starting point," said Scott Crenshaw, a vice president at NTRU Cryptosystems Inc., a security firm in Burlington, Mass. "For example, the section on assessment of current gaps and weaknesses in the private sector is particularly strong. If this document raises awareness of those issues, it will have served us well."

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