White House Cybersecurity Executive Order: What It MeansThe White House late Tuesday issued a long-awaited executive order to bolster the nation's cyber defenses. But that order leaves some questions unanswered.
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The White House, looking to strengthen the nation's cybersecurity posture in the face of rising threats and Congressional inaction, issued a long-awaited executive order Tuesday night that could improve public-private information sharing and spark the adoption of best cybersecurity practices by the nation's critical infrastructure companies.
The executive order and a related presidential policy directive, which establish a broad public-private cyberthreat information sharing regime and voluntary cybersecurity standards for the private sector, has been in the works for months. The documents were released on the heels of reports that China continues to kick up its cyberespionage, and a day before members of Congress plan to reintroduce failed legislation that aims to accomplish some of the same goals as the executive order.
"America must face the rapidly growing threat from cyber-attacks," President Obama said in the State of the Union address Tuesday night while announcing that he had signed the executive order. "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."
The executive order directs a number of improvements in information sharing. Within 120 days, the Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Justice will issue "instructions" to ensure the "timely" production and dissemination of unclassified cyberthreat reports that can be broadly shared.
Expedited security clearances for critical infrastructure employees are on the table as part of the new order. The executive order would also expand the Enhanced Cybersecurity Services program. Formerly known as the Defense Industrial Base pilot, this initiative shares classified and other cybersecurity threat information by and with defense contractors and others with security clearances. That program will now be open to a wider array of critical infrastructure companies.
In terms of standards setting, the executive order instructs the National Institute of Standards and Technology to work with other agencies and private industry in developing a risk framework and best practices, called the Cybersecurity Framework, during the next several months. A final version of the Cybersecurity Framework is due out within a year. The Department of Homeland Security will oversee voluntary adoption of these standards, but regulatory agencies that oversee critical infrastructure sectors are directed by the executive order to determine whether they can and should develop more forceful carrot and stick mechanisms to ensure adoption.
Following the release of the executive order, tech industry groups and tech companies quickly issued positive statements about the new policy. However, not all reaction has been entirely positive. Earlier drafts of the executive order would have arguably led to a more rigorous set of cybersecurity standards and best practices, leading SANS Institute director of research Alan Paller to worry about the Cybersecurity Framework's lack of teeth.
What The New Executive Order Lacks
Just as important as what is actually in the executive order is what remains undone. For example, the order does not require threat reporting to government, or eliminate possible privacy-related and antitrust liability for sharing information with government and other companies. It also fails to clarify the government's own role in physically protecting critical infrastructure networks.
Furthermore, the executive order doesn't possess the force of law, and so cannot order critical infrastructure agencies to take any steps. While the order instructs regulatory agencies to determine whether to issue more mandatory standards and to review existing regulations, such reviews will take some time.
In his speech Tuesday, Obama called on Congress to help fill in the blanks by passing legislation that would "give our government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks."
Such legislation has failed multiple times to pass, with Republican legislation in the House last year garnering a veto threat and bipartisan but Democratic-led Senate legislation failing to meet cloture. Members of Congress in both houses either have or plan to reintroduce similar legislation in this Congressional session.
Reps. Dutch Ruppersburger, D-Md., and Mike Rogers, R-Mich., plan to introduce a new version of their Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Information Act (CISPA) Wednesday. The White House in 2012 threatened to veto CISPA due largely to privacy concerns. The House Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing on the executive order later this month.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., meanwhile, said in a statement that he will continue his own efforts to pass legislation. Rockefeller has co-sponsored comprehensive cybersecurity legislation in the Senate that included voluntary cybersecurity standards, but this failed last year to pass the Senate. He reintroduced similar legislation earlier this year.
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