Wed, Feb 08, 2012 - Page 7 News List

Bigger US role mulled in cybersecurity

VISIBLE ROLE:The US Senate is proposing a bill to allow Homeland Security to select which companies’ computer security to regulate, but is receiving criticism from all sides

AP, Washington

A developing US Senate plan that would bolster the government’s ability to regulate the computer security of companies that run critical industries is drawing strong opposition from businesses that say it goes too far and security experts who believe it should have even more teeth.

Legislation set to come out in the days ahead is intended to ensure that computer systems running power plants and other essential parts of the country’s infrastructure are protected. The US Department of Homeland Security, with input from businesses, would select which companies to regulate; the agency would have the power to require better computer security, according to officials who described the bill. They spoke on condition of anonymity because lawmakers have not finalized all the details.

Those are the most contentious parts of legislation designed to boost cybersecurity against the constant attacks that target US government, corporate and personal computer networks and accounts. Authorities are increasingly worried that cybercriminals are trying to take over systems that control the inner workings of water, electrical, nuclear or other power plants.

That was the case with the Stuxnet computer worm, which targeted Iran’s nuclear program in 2010, infecting laptops at the Bushehr nuclear power plant.

As much as 85 percent of the US’ critical infrastructure is owned and operated by private companies.

The emerging proposal isn’t sitting well with those who believe it gives Homeland Security too much power and those who think it’s too watered down to achieve real security improvements.

One issue under debate is how the bill narrowly limits the industries that would be subject to regulation.

Summaries of the bill refer to companies with systems “whose disruption could result in the interruption of life-sustaining services, catastrophic economic damage or severe degradation of national security capabilities.”

Critics suggest that such limits may make it too difficult for the government to regulate those who need it.

There are sharp disagreements over whether Homeland Security is the right department to enforce the rules and whether it can handle the new responsibilities. US officials familiar with the debate said the department would move gradually, taking on higher priority industries first.

“The debate taking place in [US] Congress is not whether the government should protect the American people from catastrophic harms caused by cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, but which entity can do that most effectively,” said Jacob Olcott, a senior cybersecurity expert at Good Harbor Consulting.

Under the legislation, Homeland Security would not regulate industries that are under the authority of an agency, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, with jurisdiction already over cyberissues.

The bill, written largely by the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Senate homeland security panel, is also notable for what it does not include: a provision that would give the president authority to shut down Internet traffic to compromised Web sites during a national emergency. This “kill switch” idea was discussed in early drafts, but drew outrage from corporate leaders, privacy advocates and Internet purists who believe cyberspace should remain an untouched digital universe.

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