Gov't official: We're serious about cybersecurity this time

The nation is ready for new cybersecurity policies, a U.S. cybersecurity official says

The U.S. White House is determined to follow through on its efforts to make cybersecurity a top priority, despite earlier government efforts that have fallen flat, a top official said Wednesday.

A 60-day review of the nation's cybersecurity stance, completed recently by White House cybersecurity experts, has a list of specific goals, said Christopher Painter, cybersecurity director at the U.S. National Security Council.

"It's not the report, it's where we go after the report," Painter said during a speech at the Gartner Information Security Summit at National Harbor, Maryland. "The action plans ... are concrete steps we can take."

The cybersecurity policy review, unveiled in late May, includes a list of short-term and long-term action plans aimed at improving the cybersecurity of the U.S. government and private Internet users. Among the short-term goals for the U.S. government announced by President Barack Obama: appoint a White House cybersecurity coordinator; develop metrics for measuring improvements in cybersecurity; create a public education campaign; develop a cyberincident response plan.

Painter, who's worked on cybersecurity issues since the early '90s, said Obama's speech May 29 was the first time a national leader has devoted an entire talk to cybersecurity. Obama's emphasis on cybersecurity should demonstrate the seriousness of this effort, Painter said.

But Gary McGraw, CTO at software security and quality consulting firm Cigital, noted that past presidential administrations have also issued cybersecurity reports, and little improvement has come from them.

"We're very good at putting out these reasonable pieces of review," he said. "We're not very good at actualizing those, turning them into action, actually doing something."

Parts of the Obama report look "awfully familiar" to old government reports, including former President George W. Bush's National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace, released in 2003, McGraw said. "The main thing I'd like the government to do is get past talking about talking about cybersecurity," he said. "We've seen a number of reviews, a number of blue-ribbon panels ... around talking about cybersecurity. But we haven't really seen any tangible movement in the government space outside the intelligence community and the [Department of Defense]."

McGraw, speaking by video to the Gartner summit, said he's cautiously optimistic that some of the report's focus on reducing software vulnerabilities and cybersecurity threats will have a positive impact on U.S. cybersecurity. He also applauded Obama's emphasis on privacy and civil liberties.

But he questioned one of the main focuses of the Obama report, that the White House needs a cybersecurity coordinator. The coordinator may have limited access to Obama and little budgetary authority, McGraw said.

"It looks to me like cheerleader role," he said. "We don't really need a cheerleader, although I suppose having a cheerleader is better than having nothing at all."

Painter defended the Obama administration's efforts and suggested that many U.S. companies and residents are "ready for a change" in cybersecurity policies. The report sets out many priorities, but they're all important, he added. "All those [priorities] are fairly ambitious things we need to get done, but we need to get them done now," he said.

Cybercriminals are becoming more organized, international and targeted in their attacks, he added.

Cyberthreats have evolved into "incredibly severe attacks," he said. "We have insiders ... we have nation-state threats, a whole spectrum of threats from a bunch of guys."

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