Warning that American companies are the target of intensive cyber espionage campaign, President Barack Obama's top security officials on Wednesday said they are struggling to defend the nation from attacks on its most crucial private computer networks and called on Congress to pass legislation that would close regulatory gaps.
The executive order, which Obama signed Tuesday, relies heavily on participation from U.S. industry in creating new voluntary standards for protecting information. The order also expands the government's effort to share threat data with companies.
But lawmakers and cyber experts say that Obama's directive is missing what U.S. businesses need most: legal protection so they don't get sued if they acknowledge they've been hacked or share that data with competitors. That can only come from Congress, which hasn't been able to agree on how to protect businesses and consumers alike.
"The government is often unaware of malicious activity targeting our critical infrastructure," said Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command.
"These blind spots prevent us from being in a position of helping critical infrastructure defend itself and it prevents us from knowing when we need to defend the nation," Alexander told industry and government officials at the Commerce Department.
In Obama's speech Tuesday, he said America's enemies are "seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions and our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy."
He added, "Now, Congress must act as well by passing legislation to give our government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks."
Obama's executive order has been months in the making and is the product of often-difficult negotiations with private sector companies that oppose any increased government regulation.
While largely symbolic, the plan leaves several practical questions unanswered: Should a business be required to tell the government if it has been hacked and U.S. interests are at stake? Can a person sue her bank or water treatment facility if those companies don't take reasonable steps to protect her? If a private company's systems are breached, should the government swoop in to stop the attacks — and pick up the tab?
Under the president's new order, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has a year to finalize a package of voluntary standards and procedures that will help companies address their cybersecurity risks. The package must include flexible, performance-based and cost-effective steps that critical infrastructure companies can take to identify the risks to their networks and systems and ways they can manage those risks.
There also must be incentives the government can use to encourage companies to meet the standards, and the Pentagon will have four months to recommend whether cybersecurity standards should be considered when the department makes contracting decisions.
The order also calls for agencies to review their existing regulations to determine whether the rules adequately address cybersecurity risks.
Congress has been struggling for more than three years to reach a consensus on cybersecurity legislation. Given that failure and the escalating risks to critical systems, Obama turned to the order as a stopgap measure with the hope that lawmakers will be able to pass a bill this year. Leaders of the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday plan to reintroduce their bill that encourages the government to share classified threat information, empowers companies to also share data and provides privacy and liability protections.
The White House says it believes cybersecurity legislation is necessary to address gaps in the upcoming executive order. But last year, the Obama administration threatened to veto the House bill after privacy advocates warned that provisions in the bill could drastically expand government surveillance.
Liz Gasster, a vice president at the Business Roundtable, which represents CEOs at such corporations as Target and Coca-Cola, said companies probably aren't going to alert federal officials after being hacked — then turn around and share that information with their competitors — "until companies are given sufficient liability and anti-trust protections."
Gasster and other industry representatives also say there is an acute awareness on behalf of business leaders that the cyberthreat is real and that it would be in their favor to work closely with the federal government to prevent the next big attack, or at least deal with it more effectively.
"To them, it gets to the core of their business — their profitability," Gasster said of the CEOs she represents.
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