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US cybersecurity risks are being poorly managed by the Department of Homeland Security, according to a former US presidential information security advisor. Peter Tippett, who recently served a two-year term on the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee, said a lack of leadership on electronic security left the US at a greater risk of electronic attack.

Tippett, who is now chief technology officer with managed security firm CyberTrust, compared Homeland Security's posture in defending against electronic attacks to the lack of preparation by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) in managing relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina. "Something similar happened when Homeland Security got responsibility for both FEMA and computer security. When responsibility was transferred from the White House to Homeland Security good people left the top. There's confusion over reporting lines and no leadership," Tippett told El Reg.

US government's cybersecurity responsibilities - along with those of FEMA - were transferred from the White House to the Department of Homeland Security during a reshuffle of 22 federal agencies three years ago.

Tippett's criticisms are echoed by accusations that Homeland Security is illprepared for emergencies and beset by bureaucratic bungling by auditors and segments of the security industry.

However, Howard Schmidt, chief exec of R&H Security and a former senior White House cyber security advisor, defended the Homeland Security agency's record. "There's been a lot of criticisms but they don't take into account the good work that the Homeland Security agency is doing. It is doing all it can to improve government systems whithin the priorities it has. We are getting incrementally better systems. Improvements will take time."

Back to basics

Schmidt made the comments at the SecureLondon conference, organised by security training and certification body ISC(2), in London earlier this week. Both Schmidt and Tippett have radical ideas for improving cybersecurity in the IT industry. Schmidt wants to see software developers held personally accountable for the security of the code they write. This is a radical idea idea but who is to blame for a Win XP security bug, for example? It would take the brain of Sherlock Holmes to apportion personal blame for that on any one developer, we suspect.

Tippett advocates the wider adoption of basic security defences rather than government standards, which "don't translate into fewer hacker attacks". It would be better if PCs denied actions by default rather than permitting anything that was not known to be bad, he argued. Tippett is credited with creating one of the first commercial anti-virus products, which later became Symantec's Norton Anti- Virus. He is highly critical of the industry he helped create.

"The anti-virus industry is not interested in default deny because if they did that they wouldn't be able to sell updates," he said. "Information security problems are getting worse, even though people are spending more. Throwing money at the problem isn't helping. All the market wants to do is sell new gizmos," he added. ®

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