U.S. struggling to fight cyber attacks, calls on Congress

Gen. Keith Alexander: "The government is often unaware of malicious activity targeting our critical infrastructure."
Gen. Keith Alexander: "The government is often unaware of malicious activity targeting our critical infrastructure." (ANN HEISENFELT / AP)
Posted: February 14, 2013

WASHINGTON - Warning that American companies are the target of an intensive cyber-espionage campaign, President Obama's top security officials on Wednesday said they are struggling to defend the nation from attacks on its private computer networks and called on Congress to pass legislation that would close regulatory gaps.

Obama signed an executive order earlier this week that relies heavily on participation from U.S. industry in creating new voluntary standards for protecting information. The order also expands the government's effort to share threat data with companies.

But lawmakers and cyber experts say that Obama's directive is missing what U.S. businesses need most: legal protection so they don't get sued if they acknowledge they've been hacked or share threat data with competitors. That can come only from Congress, which hasn't been able to agree on how to protect businesses and consumers alike.

"The government is often unaware of malicious activity targeting our critical infrastructure," said Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command.

"These blind spots prevent us from being in a position of helping critical infrastructure defend itself and it prevents us from knowing when we need to defend the nation," Alexander told industry and government officials at the Commerce Department.

Obama said in his State of the Union speech Tuesday that America's enemies are "seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy."

He added, "Now, Congress must act as well by passing legislation to give our government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks."

Obama's executive order has been months in the making and is the product of often-difficult negotiations with private sector companies that oppose any increased government regulation.

Largely symbolic, the plan leaves several practical questions unanswered: Should a business be required to tell the government if it has been hacked and U.S. interests are at stake? Can a person sue a bank or water treatment facility if those companies don't take reasonable steps to protect that customer? If a private company's systems are breached, should the government swoop in to stop the attacks - and pick up the tab?

Under the president's new order, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has a year to finalize a package of voluntary standards and procedures that will help companies address their cybersecurity risks.

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