Obama administration supports new cybersecurity bill

The bill, to be debated in the Senate soon, will strengthen the U.S. cybersecurity response, the OMB says

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration "strongly supports" a new cybersecurity bill scheduled to be debated on the Senate floor soon, even though some of its provisions are watered down from earlier legislation, the White House Office of Management and Budget said Thursday.

The revised Cybersecurity Act, introduced by five senators last Friday, mirrors many of the Obama administration's cybersecurity proposals, the OMB said in a press release. The Senate may begin debating the bill as early as Friday.

"While lacking some of the key provisions of earlier bills, the revised legislation will provide important tools to strengthen the nation's response to cybersecurity risks," the OMB said.

The agency called for several changes to the bill, however.

Some tech groups have raised concerns about the bill. It has several good provisions, but it also gives too much authority to a new National Cybersecurity Council, said Larry Clinton, president and CEO of the Internet Security Alliance, a cybersecurity advocacy group. The new board, made up of presidential appointees from several federal agencies, would create what the bill calls voluntary cybersecurity standards for operators of systems designated as critical infrastructure.

The council is "granted ultimate authority over cybersecurity practices and standards," Clinton wrote in a Wednesday letter to Senate leaders.

Although the council standards are labeled as voluntary, regulatory agencies overseeing industries would have to defend any departures from the recommendations to Congress, Clinton said. "The practical effect is to place all authority in the hands of this new, untested Council," he wrote.

Clinton also raised concerns that the bill would give the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission new powers, turning it into a "cyber compliance agency." The bill also limits what cyberthreat information businesses can share with each other and doesn't protect businesses that share information with each other from lawsuits, Clinton wrote.

The bill also does not allow businesses to share information for national security reasons, he added.

The information-sharing system in the bill is "unclear and potentially counter-productive to national security needs," he wrote.

The OMB praised the bill, however, for its "strong protections for privacy and civil liberties." Several civil liberties groups praised the revised bill after raising concerns about the breadth of information sharing allowed in an earlier bill from Senators Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, and Susan Collins, a Maine Republican. Lieberman and Collins are also the lead sponsors of the new bill.

"It is essential that the collection, use, and disclosure of such information remain closely tied to the purposes of detecting and mitigating cybersecurity threats, while still allowing law enforcement to investigate and prosecute serious crimes," the OMB said. "All entities -- public and private -- must be accountable for how they handle such data. "

However, the OMB called for the Senate to change the administrative structure of the National Cybersecurity Council.

The Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), a trade group, called for some changes in the bill, although the group said it represents "substantial progress" on cybersecurity protections for the U.S.

"We are very pleased that the act's bipartisan sponsors continue to seek a framework that balances many competing interests in an effort to protect both individual Americans and the nation," Dean Garfield, ITI's president and CEO, said in a statement.

Senators should improve the voluntary performance requirements, add lawsuit protections and revamp the information-sharing portions of the bill, the group said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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