Obama's cybersecurity plan gets cautious praise

The challenge will be to get various interests working together

President Obama's plan for securing cyberspace and his creation of a new White House cybersecurity coordinator are being greeted with cautious optimism within the security industry.

Many see the strategy as a sign of the administration's willingness to recognize cyber threats as a national security issue. But until details are fleshed out, it's hard to know just how far it will go in bolstering the nation's ability to deal with cyber attacks, they said.

At a White House briefing, Obama described a five-pronged cybersecurity strategy for defending government, military and private sector networks against threats from what he said is a growing number of bad actors. He noted that the new cybersecurity coordinator will be responsible for pulling together a national strategy for securing American interests in cyberspace and stressed that the government would safeguard privacy concerns. (The new office will include a privacy officer.)

Obama's proposals had been widely expected and are based on the recommendations from a government-wide review of cybersecurity undertaken at his behest by Melissa Hathaway, a former Bush administration aide who he appointed as acting senior director for cyberspace earlier this year.

"I was encouraged see that the [Hathaway] report got presidential support today -- that's critical to the success of any program," said Patricia Titus, the one-time chief information security officer at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) who now holds a similar job at Unisys Corp.

The challenge for the Obama Administration is to actually implement the proposals in a meaningful way, Titus said. A lot will depend on the relationships the new cybersecurity coordinator can build and the kind of influence he or she can exert across government and the private sector, she said.

While centralizing authority for cybersecurity matters in the White House can have benefits, care needs to be taken to maintain a balance of power, she said. "We need to make sure that no one is pushing the red panic button without making sure there are other individuals in the decision-making process and at the appropriate levels to get input from," she said.

Obama did a "great job" of summarizing the cybersecurity threats the nation faces and the approach that's needed to resolve them, said Scott Charbo, former deputy undersecretary of the National Protection and Programs Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Especially encouraging is the president's focus on setting specific milestones and on ensuring accountability within government, said Charbo, who is currently director of cybersecurity at Accenture. Obama's apparent plan to give the new cybersecurity coordinator a greater say in ensuring that federal agencies are investing adequate resources on cybersecurity is also a very positive step, he said. But successfully moving forward on a White House-led cybersecurity effort will require a "cultural transformation" by government agencies.

"I think everyone is anxious to understand who the cybersecurity coordinator will be," Charbo said. "It needs to be someone who can listen to new ideas. It needs to be someone who is focused on outcomes and on metrics."

Ensuring that all of the right players are at the table when developing a national cybersecurity strategy will be key, added Billy O'Brien, former White House director of cybersecurity and communications systems policy. O'Brien is now an analyst at Deloitte.

To date, government officials, defense organizations and the DHS have all been working on disparate missions when it comes to cybersecurity. Getting everyone working together can be a challenge, he said.

The mission of the intelligence community, for instance, is to intercept an attack using the cyber infrastructure; the DHS is supposed to protect critical infrastructure; the Department of Defense has defense-and-attack authority; and the White House has coordination authority. The question that will need to be asked is whether "all of the right players are at the table or if there is a need to add more," O'Brien said.

Also key: figuring out how to ensure that the private sector is "holding up [its] end of the deal" when it comes to the critical infrastructure in private hands, he said.

Enrique Salem, the CEO of Symantec Corp. , said in a statement that the decision to re-establish a strong White House role for cybersecurity is "gratifying." The last executive to have a cybersecurity role in the executive offices of the president was Richard Clarke, who was special advisor on cybersecurity to President George W. Bush when he retired in 2003.

In the six years since, cyber security oversight and involvement has moved from the White House to other government agencies, even as cyber attacks have grown to the point where they are now a "full-blown threat to national security and commerce," Salem said.

"The coordination must come from the White House level to address the situation and to provide focus on the global nature of this problem," he said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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