Questions loom about Obama's cybersecurity plans

As opposition mounts to an executive order, question is whether White House will plow ahead or drop idea

With opposition growing to reported plans by President Obama to issue an Executive Order to bolster cybersecurity within the nation's critical infrastructure, the main question now is whether the White House will plow ahead with the idea or drop it quietly in an election year.

Last week, Techdirt published what it said was a leaked draft version of Obama's planned order for critical infrastructure protection. The 19-page document outlines broad security objectives for all government agencies.

Without offering many specifics, the draft order calls for a revised, more secure federal architecture and the development of a nationwide situational awareness capability for cybersecurity. The draft order also calls for the development of an information exchange network to speed up the sharing of threat information between private industry and the government.

The proposed order puts the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in charge of planning, coordinating and implementing the changes. It requires sector-specific federal agencies to work with critical infrastructure owners and regulatory entities to develop security guidelines and metrics for measuring progress.

The contents of the draft executive order are similar to the provisions of a White House-backed bill called the Cybersecurity Act. The bill is currently stalled in the Senate because of objections from Republicans who see it as being too prescriptive and giving the DHS too much enforcement authority in commercial cybersecurity matters.

The White House has said it is considering an executive order because Congress has been unable to pass meaningful cybersecurity legislation at a time when critical infrastructure assets are under growing threat from foreign adversaries and criminal hackers.

Those who back the plan say White House intervention is necessary because of Congress's inaction. They dismiss the notion that private industry can regulate itself in a responsible way and argue that a mandate is the best way forward.

"The U.S. is on the cusp of major cyber conflict around the world," said Alan Paller, director of research with the SANS Institute. He pointed to a recent attack on Saudi Arabian oil giant Saudi Aramco that disabled 30,000 PCs, as an example of the threats faced by American companies. "Had it been Exxon, you would be writing headlines saying 'cyber warfare' with exclamation points," Paller said.

"Leaving business to its own compliance regimes has put the nation at risk," he added. "This is one of those cases where government involvement is necessary. Any more hands-off behavior will be pure negligence."

That position is shared by James Lewis, director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "I think they need an [executive order]," Lewis said. "Congress is fouled up and the private sector will not provide adequate security."

Lewis is among those who developed a set of cybersecurity recommendations for the Obama Administration four years ago.

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