Cybersecurity bill, OK'd by House, draws cautious praise

Security analysts today gave a cautious thumbs-up to the passage of the Cybersecurity Enhancement Act of 2009 (HR 4061) by the U.S. House of Representatives.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), aims to bolster federal cybersecurity research and development and stimulate the growth of a cybersecurity workforce in the U.S. Approved by the House Science and Technology Committee in November, it won passage by a whopping 422-6 vote in the House.

The bill is the first major cybersecurity legislation to make it through the House this year. It now has to pass muster in Senate before it can become law, and no Senate version of the bill that has even been drafted yet.

If the bill passes the Senate and becomes law, the National Science Foundation (NSF) would get $396 million to use for research-and-development programs focused on cybersecurity. An additional $210 million or so would become available over the next four years for use by the NSF for cybersecurity scholarships and for constructing cybersecurity research facilities and offering training programs in colleges and universities.

The bill would require the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to work with other standards bodies to develop internationally accepted cybersecurity standards and for leading cybersecurity public awareness campaigns. In addition, federal agencies that participate in the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development program will have to do a detailed assessments of their cybersecurity risks and develop plans for addressing those risks.

"This bill will help improve the security of cyberspace by ensuring federal investments in cybersecurity are better focused, more effective," said Mark Bregman, CTO at Symantec Corp. in e-mailed comments. "HR 4061 represents a major step forward towards defining a clear research agenda that is necessary to stimulate investment in both the private and academic worlds."

Despite the lack of a Senate bill, there's a good chance the Senate will simply roll the House measure into an appropriations bill for NIST and NSF, according to a Symantec government relations spokesman. "The policy stuff already exists in language spread over about three different bills that are still in committee. Now that the House has passed a target for the Senate to shoot at, things should start coming together on the Senate side," he predicted.

Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute in Bethesda, Md. said the bill is "absolutely vital" and needs to be passed. "The objectives and the elements of this bill are vital to making significant progress in defending and fighting in cyber space."

But care needs to be taken on how resources are used, Paller said. On the scholarships front, "too many of the people being trained using the current scholarships do not come out of the programs with the key technical skills that are needed to dominate cyberspace." So before any new money is allocated for cybersecurity scholarships, improvements to cybersecurity programs already offered by the federally funded Centers of Academic Excellence are needed, he said.

The enhanced role given to the NIST under the bill is also a concern, given its limited operational experience, Paller said. "NIST should prove it can be a good partner with the agencies that do have the necessary skills before any additional money is given to them.

"In other words, this bill could do a lot of good," Paller said. But only if "the weaker schools upgrade their programs so they produce technically skilled people and only if NIST stops using its money to produce paperwork exercises that make money for contractors but put the nation at risk."

Clint Kreitner, president and CEO of the Center for Internet Security, said provisions in the bill that increase the cyber workforce and automate security management functions in federal agencies should advance cybersecurity. But what remains a "challenging truth" is that cyberattacks will continue until there is more focus on managing operational cybersecurity information in both the public and private sectors, he said.

There also needs to be "a quantum improvement in the abysmal quality of ... IT software," he said.

Not everyone sees the bill as useful. One industry insider who requested anonymity called it "completely useless since there is no matching bill in the Senate. The Science Committee rejected any amendments that would have made it useful.

:No one objects to this bill because it does nothing, so it wins my vote as worst cyber bill of the year," 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 .

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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