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What An Executive Order On Cybersecurity May Mean For Enterprises

While officials say an executive order could set voluntary security standards, companies worry that it can result in a checklist approach to security

An executive order aimed at bolstering cybersecurity is still in the development phase, but that does not mean enterprises shouldn't start thinking about what it could mean for them.

The executive order is the Obama administration's response to the failure of Congress to pass cybersecurity legislation -- in particular, the Cybersecurity Act of 2012. According to a White House spokesperson, the intent of the executive order is to focus on the nation's critical infrastructure. In an interview Sunday on news talk show "Platt's Energy Week," Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) said that the order would establish voluntary security standards for critical infrastructure companies.

"[The President] could certainly set up the process ... for private-public sector development of these best practice standards and then he can try to create some rewards -- not as strong as he can do by legislation -- for companies that voluntarily opt into them," Lieberman explained.

According to Jose Granado, the Americas practice leader for Information Security Services at Ernst & Young, many of the company's clients fear that an executive order would impose a checklist approach to security.

"We have seen numerous examples recently where organizations that have reached acceptable compliance levels have been compromised," he says. "We need standard, agreed-upon frameworks that allow critical infrastructure companies the opportunity to tailor for their specific needs."

Rather than checklists, organizations are looking for three distinct things: the current state of a threat, what others are doing about security, and what guiding principles should be considered when developing a security program and strategy, Granado argues. Protecting intellectual property means complicating the process of acquiring inappropriate access, detecting threats, and neutralizing threats before they expand, he says.

"In today's business environment, prevention alone is a losing strategy," Granado says. "We are reminded weekly of examples of dedicated attackers -- in some instances, nation-states -- penetrating robust perimeter defenses of the largest global companies to steal sensitive intellectual property."

Threats are increasing and becoming more targeted and aggressive, says Matt Dean, COO of security vendor FireMon.

"Certainly part of that response for most organizations are the people who prepare for, detect, and respond to threat activity," he says. "Skills in network risk assessment, application security, and forensic analysis continue to be in very high demand. As organizations shift from a reactive mode to a proactive security stance, skills in assessing network posture and application vulnerability detection will become of greater importance."

The issuance of an executive order would not address one of the key elements of the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 -- information-sharing between the private sector and government. According to former NSA Deputy Training Director Cedric Leighton, information-sharing has to span both sharing between the government and private sector as well as among entities in the private sector itself.

"Now, that doesn't mean we violate everybody's privacy and go through all of the metadata ... What is important here is to focus on the threat," says Leighton, who is now president and founder of Cedric Leighton Associates. "So the information that should be passed should only be about the different threats that are out there.

"The way I think that we should do this is have a few standards that should be based on threat information that is out there -- known or suspected threat information, the parameters of that threat information, [and] the technical characteristics of that threat information. There should be a time period in which that data is resident on systems for purposes of analysis, but then if it proved not to be a threat, that data ... should be purged from the systems after six months, a year, or whatever seems to work best."

In his interview with Platts Energy Week, Lieberman said the executive order could come this month. In the meantime, White House spokesperson Caitlin Hayden issued a statement to Dark Reading saying the Obama administration believes cybersecurity best practices should be developed in partnership with the private sector.

"We believe that companies driving cybersecurity innovations in their current practices and planned initiatives can help shape best practices across critical infrastructure," Hayden said in the statement. "Companies needing to upgrade their security would have the flexibility to decide how best to do so using a wide range of innovative products and services available in the marketplace. We remain committed to incorporating strong privacy and civil liberties protections into any initiative to secure our critical infrastructure."

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

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