DHS launches national cyber alert system

Plans call for the new e-mail system of bulletins to evolve over time

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Homeland Security today announced the launch of a National Cyber Alert System designed to provide home users, businesses and government agencies with timely warnings about new threats as well as tips on how to best secure their computers.

The system is being spearheaded by the DHS's National Cyber Security Division, led by Amit Yoran, a former executive at Symantec Corp. Yoran said the DHS will provide a series of e-mail-based products to disseminate timely information on computer security vulnerabilities, the potential impact of those vulnerabilities, and the action required to mitigate threats. The system will also offer PC security best practices and how-to tips, he said.

The announcement comes only two days after a virus called MyDoom (also known as Shimgapi and Novarg) began taking a toll on Internet performance around the nation (see story).

There are already a number of similar products offered by the private sector. Yoran said the new DHS system, which will be based out of the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), will be "complementary" to those systems and will focus on "information that is appropriate for a national-level alert system."

According to Yoran, such information would cover a vulnerability's potential "impact on infrastructures, impact on homeland and national security, how widespread a particular vulnerability is, and how actively it is being exploited." In addition, the alerts and bulletins that the DHS system will provide will be designed to provide "some sort of perspective for the nation," he said.

All information products are available on a free subscription basis and are delivered via push e-mail. They are available at www.us-cert.gov. Home users can also access cybersecurity tips and alerts from US-CERT affiliates, including StaySafe Online.

The main e-mail products are:

  • Cyber Security Tips: Targeted at nontechnical home and corporate computer users, the tips provide information on best computer security practices and how-to information on a biweekly basis.
  • Cyber Security Bulletins: Targeted at technical audiences, the bulletins provide biweekly summaries of security issues, new vulnerabilities, potential impact, patches and work-arounds, as well as actions required to mitigate risk.
  • Cyber Security Alerts: Available in two forms -- regular, for nontechnical users, and advanced, for technical users -- the alerts provide real-time information about security issues, vulnerabilities and exploits currently occurring. Alerts encourage all users to take rapid action.

Frank Libutti, undersecretary for information analysis and infrastructure protection at the DHS, characterized the system as a key building block for the partnership between the government and the private sector, which owns and operates more than 85% of the nation's most critical infrastructures. "Each system and piece of software [is] a potential point of vulnerability," said Libutti. And the public/private partnership "requires two-way communications."

Yoran said the cyber alert system won't be color-coded and won't compete or conflict with the overall color-coded homeland security threat level or other private-sector systems, such as those being used by the various Information Sharing and Analysis Centers.

"This is not intended to be a national cyber alert system in its final format," said Yoran. "Our national cyber alert system will continue to evolve, and we expect to enhance it over time."

Jerry Brady, chief technology officer at Guardent Inc., called the new system a major step in the right direction.

"It's high time that it be recognized that the risk to businesses and America is a higher-order concern than a vendor issue of maintaining reputation," said Brady. "Right now, there is way too much sympathy for vendors who turn out vulnerable software and not enough for industry [that] has to clean up the mess afterwards."

Brady warned that the pressure is now on the DHS to show that such a system provides added value to all of the existing alert mechanisms. "The microphone is on," he said. "And if the first few alerts are inaccurate, this will fade quickly."

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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