Task force aims to improve US cybersecurity
'This is not a tech focus; it is a Washington focus'
A blue-ribbon panel of three dozen security experts hopes to craft a strategy to improve the United States' cybersecurity by the time the next president takes office, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and the task force's Congressional sponsors, announced on Tuesday.
The bipartisan Commission on Cyber Security for the 44th Presidency will be tasked with creating a plan to secure the nation's computers and critical infrastructure and presenting that plan to the next president. The task force is headed by Representatives Jim Langevin (D-RI) and Michael McCaul (R-TX), Microsoft's vice president for Trustworthy Computing Scott Charney and retired Navy admiral Bobby Inman.
The commission will have at least four major meetings over the next year to hash out an agenda, investigate the issues and make recommendations, James Lewis, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which is funding the commission.
"This is not a tech focus; it is a Washington focus," Lewis said. "You always have an opportunity, when a new administration comes in, to do some quick fixes and that is what we are trying to do with this commission."
Cybersecurity has not been a major priority for past administrations. In 1998, President Clinton signed Presidential Decision Directive No. 63, which required agencies to take steps to protect eight critical infrastructures.
In 2000, the Clinton Administration unveiled its National Plan to Protect Critical Infrastructure, but failed to fund critical programs to push federal agencies to secure their systems.
While many of those agencies have slowly improved their security compliance scores under the Federal Information System Management Act (FISMA) of 2002, the Bush Administration has also largely failed to create strong recommendations or requirements to improve cybersecurity.
This year, the House Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cyber Security and Science and Technology has taken an increasing interest in federal agencies' failure to protect themselves against online attacks.
The Department of State acknowledged in June 2006 that attackers had installed remote access software on systems in the agency and abroad, stolen passwords and targeted information on China and North Korea. In October 2006, the Department of Commerce took hundreds of computers offline following a series of attacks aimed at federal employees' computer accounts by online thieves that appear to be based in China.
"I believe the government, across all levels, is too complacent when it comes to protecting their digital assets and this needs to change,” commission co-chair Rep. Langevin, who also heads the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cyber Security and Science and Technology, said in a statement.
The commission aims to be nonpartisan and brings together 32 security experts, apart from the four people heading the panel. Among the experts are Idaho National Laboratories' infrastructure protection strategist Michael Assante, Oracle's chief technology officer Mary Ann Davidson, Princeton University professor of computer science Edward Felten, IBM Internet Security System's CEO Tom Noonan, and Verizon's executive director for national security policy Marcus Sachs.
As of yet, there is not firm agenda for the commission, said Sachs.
"There are no assumptions," he said. "Lets just get the cybersecurity experts together and see what comes out as an agenda."
Whether online attacks could constitute terrorism is still a matter of contention today, but the ability of Internet attackers to affect financial networks, power system, and infrastructure critical to the U.S. economy is not. For example, since March, the Department of Homeland Security has been showing power companies a video of a simulated attack against a power plant using a real vulnerability. In the video, a turbine dramatically overheats while smoke pours out.
"While cybersecurity in the U.S. has improved in the last five years, the threat model continues to change and the risks to U.S. security and economic well-being are steadily increasing," Microsoft's Charney, one of the four co-chairs of the commission, said in a statement sent to SecurityFocus. "Therefore, much still needs to be done."
The commission plans to have a report outlining their recommendations to give to the next president's transitional team in December 2008.
“The next President and their administration must be prepared to hit the ground and protect America’s cyber networks,” Rep. McCaul, the ranking member of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cyber Security and Science and Technology, said in a statement. “As it stands now this nation is severely challenged by current cyber attacks."
This article originally appeared in Security Focus.
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