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What Obama's Cybersecurity Plans Mean For Businesses

Administration's new cybersecurity policies could yield new security regulations and incentives for enterprises, experts say
While President Obama was careful to assuage fears of government overstepping when it comes to privacy and power regarding his new cybersecurity plans -- the administration will not "dictate security standards" for private companies, he said on Friday -- security experts say he still left the door open for some form of regulation that could impact how enterprises secure their systems and networks.

And that may be the only way to better lock down data. "There are certain aspects of security that won't be well-addressed in industry without some kind of regulation," says Dave Merkel, vice president of products at Mandiant. The key is how the regulation is applied, and that it's not too big or "unwieldy," he says.

Paul Henry, security and forensic analyst for Lumension Security, says letting industry regulate itself during the past few years has been a failure when it comes to security. "I really hate regulation, but I think a minimum bar needs to be set [by the government]," Henry says. "It just seems the current regulation [with PCI, for example] is there to lower the bar and make it easier to become compliant, and not raise the bar for security for the masses. I'm personally hoping some form of federal regulation that levels the playing field comes out of all of this."

Henry points to PCI taking years to include a firewall requirement, and then not actually defining an application firewall: "So you had vendors able to [use] a packet filter, plug in some signatures, and call it an application firewall," he says. And the PCI standards body's recent relaxation of the time frame for patching from 30 days to using "best practices" is problematic, Henry says. "A bad guy can reverse-engineer a [patch] in 24 hours, yet now a PCI organization has 30-plus days to install that critical patch," he says.

With the feds now focused on better coordinating the security of their own systems, any new federal rules and regulations are likely to trickle down to some businesses anyway. "If you do business for the federal government, the umbrella of FISMA will drop [over] your head. And if you're owned in part by the federal government, as some companies are now, you have to be in line with government standards," says Tom Kellermann, vice president of security awareness for Core Security Technologies.

Additional compliance legislation could emerge around mandatory disclosure, too. Andrew Jaquith, senior analyst for Forrester Research, says the stimulus bill (a.k.a. the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) already contains language about how companies should handle healthcare information, so the foundation is there: "Combining name and address, for example, with a patient ID or treatment information automatically means that information now must be protected and reported if spilled or stolen," Jaquith says. "Could we see additional legislation that would start to pull other sectors into a mandatory requirement regime? Sure -- and credit cards could be one of them."

For Obama's cybersecurity plans to be successful, Core Security's Kellermann says the key is for the government to provide incentives for businesses that practice proper "cyber-hygiene." "I would hope the president will begin to enact certain plans and incentives for those businesses that are doing their due diligence now and have been invested in cybersecurity -- those that have at least attempted to align with NIST's best practices," he says.

If they are using third-party auditors and remediating their security vulnerabilities, they should receive tax breaks or government grants, he says. "The actors doing the appropriate cyber-hygiene should be praised, held up, and should receive incentives," Kellermann says.

Incentives also could be tied to stimulus funds and investments in the smart grid, the next-generation power industry infrastructure, says Shannon Kellogg, director of government affairs for EMC RSA. "One opportunity the administration has that wasn't highlighted in the report [released last Friday] was that as stimulus funds continue to be rolled out, this time you could build security in with that infrastructure, like smart-grid investments, and tie in incentives to do that," Kellogg says. "Why not tie the granting of next-generation infrastructure funds to the adoption of security controls? I would like to see more on that front."

Of course, looming overhead is a weak economy that continues to squeeze IT and security organizations. Core Security's Kellermann points out that in this economic climate, businesses are often inclined to outsource more of their IT operations and use more managed services -- namely cheaper, offshore providers, which can pose additional security risks. "The problem with economic situations is they exacerbate the cybersecurity issue," he says.

Kellermann says he hopes the president's speech will serve as a wake-up call for companies to better weave security into their IT strategy. "It's not about building a house on the Internet anymore...it's how you can maintain the integrity and resilience of that house now," he says.

Another area that could change for businesses is how they share attack information with the feds. The Cybersecurity Review report released in conjunction with Obama's remarks called for better collaboration between government and industry, says Forrester's Jaquith. "In order to do this, we will need to see some kind of 'safe harbor' legislation established that would make the information nondiscoverable and shield corporations from antitrust issues," he says. "In other words, corporations should not incur additional legal risk to share."

Jaquith says anonymization and de-identification are likely to play a central role to help make companies "less reticent" about sharing attack data with the feds.

Meanwhile, security experts had hoped Obama's new cybersecurity coordinator would directly report to the Oval Office, but instead he or she will report to both the National Security Council and the National Economic Council. Obama said in his remarks on Friday that he will personally choose the top cybersecurity czar, who will have a direct line to him.

Lumension's Henry, who expressed disappointment that Obama hadn't yet named the cybersecurity czar, says Obama's cybersecurity speech didn't sound much different than what his predecessor, George W. Bush, had said during his tenure. "The only real difference I heard was that he's actually going to incorporate policy into his initiatives," Henry says.

But Kellermann says Obama's remarks signaled a new era in the nation's cybersecurity policy. "I was heartened for the first time in 12 years to the potential for the realization by the powers-that-be that we can win this war," Kellermann says. "This has ushered in an era where corporate plausible deniability has finally ended. [Security is] no longer someone else's problem."

Meantime, businesses can begin preparing for upcoming national cybersecurity policy shifts by making shifts of their own, like empowering their CISOs with their own budgets, improving authentication, and conducting risk assessments, penetration tests, and code reviews of their Web applications, Kellermann says.

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