FAQ: What you need to know about CISPA

The House version of the information-sharing bill passed last week

The U.S. House of Representatives last week passed the controversial Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act despite opposition from privacy advocates, lawmakers and even the White House, which threatened to veto the bill if it lands on the president's desk in its current form.

Here's what you need to know about CISPA.

What is CISPA? CISPA is short for the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (H.R. 3523). U.S Reps. Mike J. Rogers (R-Mich.) and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) introduced the bill in the House in November. The bill is designed to bolster cybersecurity by enabling better information sharing between Internet companies and the government. An amended version of the bill passed the House by a 248-168 vote Thursday.

What sort of information sharing? CISPA would allow Internet companies, such as Internet service providers, to monitor their networks and to collect, analyze and share information on any user activities that they believe present a threat to their networks. The law would allow companies to share any information "pertaining to the protection" of their networks with the National Security Agency and other federal agencies. In return, federal agencies would share both classified and unclassified cyberthreat information in their possession to help Internet companies bolster their defenses against cyberthreats.

Who supports CISPA? CISPA has broad support from many technology companies, industry trade groups and lawmakers who say that information sharing is vital to cybersecurity.

Why do privacy advocates and rights groups oppose the bill? Organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Democracy and Technology say the bill is dangerous because it is too vaguely worded. They worry that the bill would allow Internet companies to collect an almost unlimited set of information about Internet users and would allow the companies to share the information with government agencies such as the NSA, without judicial oversight. The law would also allow Internet companies to use a "cybersecurity exception" clause to skirt the privacy protection provided by statutes such as the Federal Wiretap Act and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

What do you mean by vaguely worded? Critics claim the bill uses loose language to describe cyberthreats, network security attacks, countermeasures, cybersecurity systems, and other crucial terms. They claim the ambiguity can create big problems. For instance, CISPA offers no clear explanation of what activity defines a cyberthreat, although companies would be allowed to monitor and share information about those activities. The language would also allow companies to collect information on almost all Internet communications, and justify it on cybersecurity grounds. Even innocuous activity such as using a proxy server or an anonymizer could be deemed a suspicious activity under CISPA.

Are these the only concerns? No. Opponents of the bill say CISPA would expand the government's ability to monitor private communications under the premise of cybersecurity. They say the bill would allow data that's collected to detect and deter cyberthreats could also be used for national security purposes and other law enforcement uses. They argue that Internet companies that share data with the government would enjoy a great deal of legal immunity even when they violate personal privacy rights.

How exactly would it affect me? In theory, the bill would allow your ISP, or an Internet company such as Google or a Facebook, to more easily justify collecting information on all your online activities and share them with the NSA and other federal agencies.

Would CISPA require companies to share data with the government? No, it would not. Companies would not have to collect or share any cybersecurity data with the NSA or others. However, most companies are likely to participate in the information sharing because of the promise of getting useful cyberintelligence from the government and other companies in return for their own information. Regardless of whether CISPA becomes law, companies are still be required to provide information to the government if they receive a court order.

What about the amendments in the version of CISPA that was passed by the House Thursday? The amendments address some of the concerns but not all, according to privacy advocates. CISPA as passed, does offer a narrower definition of the information that can be collected and shared. The amended version of the bill would also impose new restrictions on how the data can be used by federal agencies.

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.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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