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The private-sector information sharing centers once envisioned as the keystone of a national US cyber security program aren't doing much sharing with the government, according to a year-long review conducted by the General Accounting Office, released Wednesday.

The GAO, Congress' investigative arm, looked at the Information Sharing and Analysis Centers (ISACs) for five of the so-called "critical infrastructures": Telecommunications, Electricity, Information Technology, Energy and Water.

As conceived by the Clinton Administration three years ago, the ISACs would be privately-run clearinghouses for companies in each sector to share information on vulnerabilities, threats and attacks with one another, as well as with other ISACs and the government's National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC) -- now part of the new Department of Homeland Security.

The idea was to provide a way to detect coordinated "cyber terrorism" or state sponsored attacks that may be aimed at causing significant harm across different sectors -- for example, a simultaneous attack on an electric company's network and a phone company switch in the same city could indicate that someone was hoping to cause a regional disruption, the theory goes.

But the new report finds that the ISACs comprise a frayed patchwork of information sharing, rather than the seamless blanket originally planned. The ISACs for Energy and Water won't share attack information with other centers. Those two, and the Information Technology ISAC, won't give NIPC access to their electronic libraries of reported incidents. The Telecommunications ISAC has yet to establish such a library.

And of the centers studied, only the Information Technology ISAC has developed baseline statistics on the normal level of cyberattacks -- so the others may not be able to empirically detect an increase in attacks.

The centers report some incidents to NIPC -- anywhere from one to four a month each. But by "not fully implementing all these key activities, the ability of the ISACs to gather, analyze, and disseminate information within and across sectors and the government could be limited," the GAO concludes.

The alleged reason for the ISACs' closed-mouth approach: corporate fear that information they give the government could be become public through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Congress tried to address that concern last November when it included in the Homeland Security Act a provision that exempts shared critical infrastructure information from FOIA disclosure. But the GAO concluded that "it is too early to tell" if the law will really uncork the information bottle, or whether "additional actions may be needed, such as the use of public policy tools, to encourage increased private-sector CIP efforts and information sharing with the federal government."

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