Coordinate, But Distribute Responsibility

By Bruce Schneier
NYTimes.com
May 29, 2009

This essay appeared as part of a round table about Obama's cybersecurity speech on The New York Times's Room for Debate blog.

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.

earlier essay: We Shouldn't Poison Our Minds with Fear of Bioterrorism
later essay: Be Careful When You Come to Put Your Trust in the Clouds
categories: National Security Policy
back to Essays and Op Eds

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc..