White House exploring executive order to secure critical networks

Continued bickering in Congress over cybersecurity legislation prompting move, report says

President Obama is exploring the option of using his executive authority to get government agencies and critical infrastructure owners to implement better controls for protecting their computer networks.

According to a report by Reuters, the White House is considering the move because of the continuing delay by Congress to pass the Cybersecurity Act bill.

The bill is heavily supported by the White House and is designed to bolster cyber security by giving businesses and government agencies better mechanisms for sharing cyberthreat information.

It is sponsored by Senators Joseph Lieberman (Ind,-CT) and Susan Collins, (R-ME) and several other democratic lawmakers. The bill calls for the creation of an inter-agency council that would work with critical infrastructure owners to develop new voluntary cybersecurity standards.

The act also requires certain government agencies to submit to an annual security certification process and offers liability protection for private companies that get voluntarily certified each year.

The Cybersecurity Act is currently stalled in the U.S. Senate over disagreements involving some of its provisions. Though the bill has been heavily revised from its original version to accommodate the objections of several lawmakers and privacy groups, many still insist that it is too over reaching in scope.

Opponents, many of whom are Republicans, say the bill is too regulatory in its approach and vests the Department of Homeland Security with too much authority.

Earlier this year, several GOP senators proposed a revised version of a Republican-backed legislation called SECURE IT, as an alternative to the Cybersecurity Act.

The continued bickering in Congress may soon prompt the President to issue an executive order to protect critical infrastructure networks, White House Homeland Security adviser John Brennan is quoted as saying in the Reuters report. "I mean if the Congress is not going to act ... then the president wants to make sure that we are doing everything possible," Brennan is reported to have said.

Brennan did not elaborate on the timing of such a move, nor what the contents of such an executive order would be. But in remarks to the Council of Foreign Relations on Wednesday, Brennan made it clear that the White House is actively discussing such a measure. "One of the things that we need to do in the executive branch is to see what we can do to maybe put additional guidelines and policies in place under executive branch authority," he said per the report.

Brennan's latest comments are not the first time the executive office has publicly aired its concern over the continuing delay by Congress to pass comprehensive cybersecurity legislation. In a press briefing earlier this month, Brennan urged Senate lawmakers to pass the bill saying the nation's security was at risk because of the bickering in Congress.

Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, called the rumored plans for an executive order one of the best ideas for moving towards consensus security controls for critical infrastructure organizations.

Companies are increasingly struggling to keep pace with the threats being directed against their networks, Paller noted. And the problem is only getting worse, he said. "One of the top companies in the country told me today [how] their newly-discovered malware skyrocketed in the last 90 days from 720 to more than 3,000," he said.

Almost none of malware was detectable using standard antivirus tools forcing the company to reverse engineer them, he said.

"If we are serious about fixing [the cybersecurity problem] we need to act," Paller said. "If Congress won't act, and the President can, God speed!"

John Pescatore, an analyst at Gartner, downplayed the significance of the White House move. "It is all politics versus having much to do with actual increase in security in critical infrastructure," he said.

"Most of the focus is on developing information security standards which, of course, already exist," Pescatore said.

The power utilities, for instance, already have to follow North American Electric Reliability Corp.'s Critical Infrastructure Protection standards, and all government agencies and the Defense Industrial Base must assess systems for adherence to the National Institute of Standards and Technology's 800-53 security standards, he said.

Similarly, much of the information sharing proposed by the Cybersecurity Act is already going on, Pescatore added.

"ISACs already exist for every industry, including energy and the every part of the critical infrastructure," Pescatore pointed out. "The legislation is mostly about increasing government involvement in commercial security, which leads to more complexity and cost - not higher levels of security," he said.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at  @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

See more by Jaikumar Vijayan on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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