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Obama fights cyber threats with new White House post

Barack's brush with cyber espionage

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US President Barack Obama will create a new White House post that's responsible for protecting the country's critical computer networks, a step he said was crucial to confronting one of the biggest national security challenges.

For what is likely the first time ever, the leader of the free world spoke publicly about botnets, phishing, malware, and other internet-based attacks that not only threaten millions of individuals, but the country's military and intelligence networks as well. He also recounted his personal brush with cyber espionage, confirming for the first time a report that travel plans, policy papers, and other files were accessed after hackers penetrated his presidential campaign's computer system.

"Everyday, we see waves of cyber thieves trolling for sensitive information," he said, according to a transcript of a press conference. "The disgruntled employee on the inside, the lone hacker a thousand miles away, organized crime, the industrial spy, and increasingly, foreign intelligence services. Indeed, in today's world, acts of terror could come not only from a few extremists in suicide vests but from a few keystrokes on a computer, a weapon of mass disruption."

Obama's announcement Friday coincided with a report in The New York Times that the Pentagon plans to create a new military command for cyberspace that would step up capabilities to conduct both offensive and defensive computer warfare. It will complement the civilian post Obama is establishing, the paper said.

The announcements came as the White House unveiled a 76-page review (PDF) that Obama ordered shortly after taking office in January. Although administration officials have dubbed it a "top-to-bottom" study of the strategy for protecting systems that run air traffic control systems, stock exchanges and other critical networks, the report was mostly notable for its vague generalities. They included nuggets such as:

  • The government needs to integrate competing interests to derive a holistic vision and plan to address the cybersecurity-related issues confronting the United States. The Nation needs to develop the policies, processes, people, and technology required to mitigate cybersecurity-related risks.

and

  • The United States needs a comprehensive framework to ensure coordinated response and recovery by the government, the private sector, and our allies to a significant incident or threat.

The report could also be faulted for not explicitly recommending that the leader of the new post report directly to the president, as a panel of security experts recommended in December. Obama said only that he would personally appoint the "cyber security coordinator" and that the "official will have my full support and regular access to me."

Still, it's not every day that the president uses his bully pulpit to communicate the growing threat computer-based attacks pose and to declare computer security a national priority.

"From now on, our digital infrastructure, the networks and computers we depend on everyday, will be treated as they should be - as a strategic national asset," he declared.

Now, the real work begins. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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