White House looking to Capitol Hill on cyber

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White House adviser Ari Schwartz goes about the business of explaining the Obama administration’s cybersecurity goals methodically. At multiple recent conferences for cybersecurity professionals in the Washington, D.C., area, Schwartz has offered updates on threats as varied as Heartbleed and the Chinese hackers indicted by the Justice Department.

At a certain point in his presentation, the topic of congressional action usually comes up. Schwartz responds with sober optimism or humor, holding out hope that Congress will act on one of the few bipartisan issues left on Capitol Hill. 

“We all know that Congress right now has trouble naming post offices, so cybersecurity legislation is not the easiest thing to get through,” he quipped at a recent conference hosted by the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium.

The White House has issued a handful of cyber-related executive orders, including a February 2013 directive that set up a voluntary framework for critical-infrastructure providers to share threat information with the government. But only so much can be done by presidential decree.

On the White House’s legislative wish list are codifying protections for consumers against data breaches and boosting information sharing between government and industry, Schwartz said in an interview.

Cybersecurity legislation drafted in the House and Senate the last two years has stalled in the face of proprietary concerns from business and privacy concerns from the public. Another obstacle has been the big-bang approach in which multiple cyber issues are included in a bill, making it harder for legislation to pass.

The Senate in November 2012 voted down a bill sponsored by then-Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) that would have tasked the Department of Homeland Security with conducting cyber-risk assessments by sector. Obama’s executive order on information sharing came three months later.

“In legislative discussion, people say, ‘Well, let’s just knock [out all the issues] at the same time.’ But that hasn’t been working,” Schwartz told FCW. “So then the question is, well, how we can look at this in a way that we can come to agreement about some subset of it?”

Lawmakers may be coming to the realization that a piecemeal approach might be best on cybersecurity, and the White House and a key Senate Republican are largely on the same page on cybersecurity policy.

“Frankly, I was a little bit suspect when I first heard that the president … was going to issue an executive order on cybersecurity,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said this week at a Bloomberg Government-hosted conference, adding that, over a round of golf with Obama last year, “it was amazing” to learn that “we were basically in the same place” on cybersecurity. Chambliss praised the executive order for helping to facilitate better public-private communication through the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology.   

Chambliss, the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, hopes that commonality with the White House on cybersecurity will translate into Democratic support for a bill he is crafting with committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). The legislation would set up a “portal” in DHS where private firms can confidentially share threat information without legal liability.

A draft of the bill also would allow firms to initiate countermeasures to repel malware attacks, for example. Firms would be able to carry out countermeasures across their networks and, with written authorization, across federal networks. The move would provide legal cover to what is currently a gray area in cybersecurity. The data collected through the use of countermeasures would provide fodder for information-sharing across the private sector, and between the private sector and government, said Mark Seward, senior director of public sector solutions marketing at Splunk, a data analytics platform used by several federal agencies.

Chambliss and Feinstein are still hashing out their differences over the bill, a process Chambliss said they began a year and a half ago. And privacy remains an unresolved issue for some lawmakers.

“There have been a lot of privacy concerns about the information-sharing legislation,” said Schwartz, who added that the White House has coordinated closely with Capitol Hill. Schwartz listed Senate Democrats Ron Wyden (Ore.), Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Al Franken (Minn.) as examples of those most concerned about privacy protection.

Chambliss said he and Feinstein are counting votes for their draft legislation, and the Georgia Republican exudes confidence that the stars will align this time. The House has its own draft legislation, driven by Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), that Chambliss said will mesh well with his.

Time of the essence

Chambliss is retiring at the end of the year, lending urgency to his push for information-sharing legislation. “If we don’t do it between now and the end of year, and it’s thrown over to the next Congress, the House is going to have a new influx of members, the Senate’s going to have a new influx of members,” he said at the Bloomberg Government event. “The balance of power may change, and you’re looking at a year from now and I’m betting you nothing would be done.

That cyber-attacks are increasingly being used as a geopolitical tool makes information-sharing legislation all the more urgent in the eyes of newly minted National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers.

“The sooner, the better,” he said at his March confirmation hearing, speaking on the need for such legislation. “It’s only a matter of time, I believe, before we start to see more destructive activity, and that perhaps is the greatest concern of all to me.”

Intelligence agencies worry about the vulnerability of U.S critical infrastructure to cyberattacks backed by American adversaries. Iran reportedly sponsored distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks in September 2012 on big U.S. banks. State-sponsored hacking got even more attention last month when the Justice Department indicted five members of China’s army for allegedly stealing trade secrets from steel and nuclear energy producers, among other U.S. firms.

While Obama’s executive order, compliance with which is voluntary, is a “step in the right direction,” Rogers said at his confirmation hearing that more specific information-sharing legislation is the long-run answer to cyber-threats.

FCW Staff Writer Adam Mazmanian contributed to this report.

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