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A Chat With The Cybersecurity Czar

Howard Schmidt talks global cooperation in cyberattack prevention, and how the feds should share threat intelligence with private industry

President Obama's cybersecurity coordinator last week hinted that an official effort to foster international cooperation in preventing cybercrime and cyberespionage while protecting privacy and freedom on the Internet could soon be in the works.

Howard Schmidt, special assistant to the President and White House cybersecurity coordinator, said in an interview with Dark Reading last week at the RSA Conference in San Francisco that we "will see more" on an international strategy for combating cybercrime and cyberespionage.

"[Preventing] economic espionage and money-laundering have become a priority that other countries are also actively participating in," Schmidt said. "There are some norms we should start looking at ... how are we going to act as governments?"

But the key is doing this without adversely affecting freedom, privacy, and civil liberties, according to Schmidt.

Schmidt, who was named cybersecurity czar by President Obama in late 2009, also briefly addressed the controversial definition of cyberwar. "Making sure your adversary doesn't have the ability to cut your command and control infrastructure doesn't mean war ... technology [can become] part of a war," he said.

The past year was a seminal one for the security industry, with the attacks on Google and other major companies, Stuxnet, and Anonymous group's wave of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks -- and, most recently, the group's targeted attack on security firms HBGary Federal and HBGary.

"These were all things we have been dealing with" for some time in the security industry; DDoS and cyberespionage are nothing new, Schmidt said. "What this has done is bring these [threats] to the mainstream," he said, given their high profile and publicity.

When asked how these events have shaped or changed the mission of his office, Schmidt reiterated that his office is in charge of coordinating the government's cybersecurity efforts. "We are a convening body, a coordinating body," he said. The White House office basically provides the mechanism for cyberincident response, he noted.

When it comes to sharing attack intelligence, Schmidt said the federal government must help private industry. "We are able to coalesce intelligence ... the government has information that comes from its unique position, so part of this is taking that information and [showing] we care about putting the bad guys in jail," he said. "We want to make sure we are sharing with our private-sector partners."

That includes the Department of Homeland Security providing a mechanism for sharing risk information on a real-time basis, he said. Information Sharing And Analysis Centers (ISACs), such as the Financial Services' ISAC, are an example of a government initiative that mandates public and private sectors share physical and cybersecurity threat information to help protect the U.S.'s critical infrastructure.

There's also the FBI's geographically dispersed InfraGuard organizations, which provide a way for law enforcement to share information and intelligence with businesses and academia, for example.

But many enterprises remain gun-shy about sharing with law enforcement, namely with the FBI. They say the FBI rarely reciprocates once they provide their breach or attack information to the agency.

"That continues to be a challenge," Schmidt acknowledged. "No matter where you intersect with the government … there is going to be some things that cannot be shared back right away."

And investigations are a process, he said, and information-sharing is typically fraught with privacy and other issues, he said. But the FBI is working on ways of making it more of a two-way street, according to Schmidt.

Meanwhile, the feds are working on building a workforce development strategy that attracts and retains IT and information security talent. The goal is to get the next generation of IT pros to seriously consider working for the federal government, rather than just private industry. While there will be financial hurdles given the inherent budgetary constraints of government, Schmidt said, the idea is to provide security pros clear with long-term career paths, such as ultimately becoming an undersecretary for cybersecurity.

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Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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