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Obama Puts Cybersecurity Front And Center As An Economic, Public Safety, And National Security Concern

President says he will "personally select" a White House-based cybersecurity coordinator, and ensures privacy and civil liberties will be maintained as U.S. cybersecurity efforts intensify

President Barack Obama today officially announced his plans for a more aggressive policy for cybersecurity -- one that starts with a new White House post charged with coordinating policies and initiatives for securing the nation's digital infrastructure.

"This new approach starts at the top, with this commitment from me: From now on, our digital infrastructure -- the networks and computers we depend on every day -- will be treated as they should be, as a strategic national asset," Obama said in his remarks Friday morning at a White House briefing in the East Room. "Protecting this infrastructure will be a national security priority. We will ensure that these networks are secure, trustworthy, and resilient. We will deter, prevent, detect, and defend against attacks and recover quickly from any disruptions or damage."

Obama noted that cybersecurity is a "matter of public safety and national security," noting the nation's reliance on those networks that deliver power and water and run air traffic control.

Cybersecurity is also a matter of economic competitiveness for the United States, Obama said, pointing to the $132 billion in retail sales generated by ecommerce in 2008. "Our economic prosperity will depend on cybersecurity," he said.

The president's remarks were in conjunction with the release of the much-anticipated review of the nation's existing cybersecurity policies, a project he commissioned to Melissa Hathaway, acting senior director for cyberspace of the National Security Council (NSC) and the Homeland Security Council (HSC). Hathaway's final report, based on input from the security industry, government, academia, and privacy advocates, laid out several recommendations for the administration, including appointing a cybersecurity official and making cybersecurity a key management priority for the president.

The as-yet unnamed cybersecurity coordinator, who Obama said he plans to handpick, will be in charge of coordinating the nation's security policies and incident response. That person will report to both the National Security Council and the National Economic Council, and have a direct line to the president, as well.

Overall, the security industry, which played a key role in the cybersecurity review, is applauding Obama's remarks. "The president understands that cybersecurity is critically important to the physical security and economy of the nation. Succeeding will require the best minds and efforts in both the public and private sectors. The president has demonstrated personal resolve on this issue. The challenge we face now is public and private accountability to execute on his vision," says Phil Dunkelberger, CEO of PGP, and chairman of TechAmerica's Cybersecurity Advisory Group.

But some security experts raised concerns about whether all of the rhetoric will translate into real policy and change, as well just how much power the government will have over securing private, nongovernment networks.

Obama, meanwhile, said he is committed to keeping the Internet "open and free." "Our pursuit of cybersecurity will not -- I repeat, will not -- include monitoring private sector networks or Internet traffic. We will preserve and protect the personal privacy and civil liberties that we cherish as Americans," he said.

And the administration will not "dictate security standards" for private companies, he said.

Among the actions the administration plans to take in response to Hathaway's report are creating a new strategy for securing the nation's networks; working with state and local governments and the private sector "to ensure an organized and unified response to future cyberincidents"; strengthening public-private partnerships; investing in leading-edge R&D; and launching a national campaign to promote cybersecurity.

Although there were no big surprises in Obama's position or the contents of the cybersecurity review, experts say the tone and stature of the president's remarks on cybersecurity is the big news. "The fact that he has prioritized it and called our digital infrastructure a national strategic asset has put some political capital behind this," says Shannon Kellogg, director of government affairs for EMC RSA, who was in attendance at today's White House briefing. "We've had lots of reports over the years, so it's critical to execute this now. With a cybersecurity coordinator in the White House streamlining how we address this in the federal agencies and forging strong public-private partnerships, we're going to be in a better position as a country to implement these recommendations."

Andrew Jaquith, senior analyst with Forrester Research, blogged today that the cybersecurity review puts too much weight in consumer education, doesn't go far enough in pushing identity management, and only hints at better securing critical infrastructures, such as SCADA and the air traffic control system.

But Jaquith says the administration's policy review is "all good" in its emphasis on outcomes, rather than the process itself: "Overall, there is more to like about the Cyberspace Policy Review than dislike," Jaquith blogged. "It correctly shifts the emphasis from process to outcomes, and makes pragmatic recommendations on how to remove barriers to getting things done. This is all good."

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Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at DarkReading.com. 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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