Obama's Cybersecurity Speech
I am optimistic about President Obama’s new cybersecurity policy and the appointment of a new “cybersecurity coordinator,” though much depends on the details. What we do know is that the threats are real, from identity theft to Chinese hacking to cyberwar.
His principles were all welcome—securing government networks, coordinating responses, working to secure the infrastructure in private hands (the power grid, the communications networks, and so on), although I think he’s overly optimistic that legislation won’t be required. I was especially heartened to hear his commitment to funding research. Much of the technology we currently use to secure cyberspace was developed from university research, and the more of it we finance today the more secure we’ll be in a decade.
Education is also vital, although sometimes I think my parents need more cybersecurity education than my grandchildren do. I also appreciate the president’s commitment to transparency and privacy, both of which are vital for security.
But the details matter. Centralizing security responsibilities has the downside of making security more brittle by instituting a single approach and a uniformity of thinking. Unless the new coordinator distributes responsibility, cybersecurity won’t improve.
As the administration moves forward on the plan, two principles should apply. One, security decisions need to be made as close to the problem as possible. Protecting networks should be done by people who understand those networks, and threats needs to be assessed by people close to the threats. But distributed responsibility has more risk, so oversight is vital.
Two, security coordination needs to happen at the highest level possible, whether that’s evaluating information about different threats, responding to an Internet worm or establishing guidelines for protecting personal information. The whole picture is larger than any single agency.
This essay originally appeared on The New York Times website, along with several others commenting on Obama’s speech. All the essays are worth reading, although I want to specifically quote James Bamford making an important point I’ve repeatedly made:
The history of White House czars is not a glorious one as anyone who has followed the rise and fall of the drug czars can tell. There is a lot of hype, a White House speech, and then things go back to normal. Power, the ability to cause change, depends primarily on who controls the money and who is closest to the president’s ear.
Because the new cyber czar will have neither a checkbook nor direct access to President Obama, the role will be more analogous to a traffic cop than a czar.
Gus Hosein wrote a good essay on the need for privacy:
Of course raising barriers around computer systems is certainly a good start. But when these systems are breached, our personal information is left vulnerable. Yet governments and companies are collecting more and more of our information.
The presumption should be that all data collected is vulnerable to abuse or theft. We should therefore collect only what is absolutely required.
I wrote something similar in 2002 about the creation of the Department of Homeland Security:
The human body defends itself through overlapping security systems. It has a complex immune system specifically to fight disease, but disease fighting is also distributed throughout every organ and every cell. The body has all sorts of security systems, ranging from your skin to keep harmful things out of your body, to your liver filtering harmful things from your bloodstream, to the defenses in your digestive system. These systems all do their own thing in their own way. They overlap each other, and to a certain extent one can compensate when another fails. It might seem redundant and inefficient, but it’s more robust, reliable, and secure. You’re alive and reading this because of it.
EDITED TO ADD (6/2): Gene Spafford’s opinion.
EDITED TO ADD (6/4): Good commentary from Bob Blakley.