SAN FRANCISCO -- RSA CONFERENCE 2013 -- The White House's top cybersecurity official here last week confirmed what experts had been speculating since President Obama issued an executive order for shoring up the security of critical infrastructure earlier this month: The order lays the groundwork for still-needed cybersecurity legislation.
"The executive order is really a down payment -- a down payment on a lot of the hard work that [has been done]," Michael Daniel, special assistant to the president and cybersecurity coordinator, told attendees during a special White House forum session on the executive order at the RSA Conference. "There are things the executive order can't do, such as direct agencies to do things they don't already have [the authority] to do in the first place.
"We definitely need Congress to act and update our laws so we can see progress in cybersecurity," he said.
[Industrial control systems vendors are starting to patch security bugs, but actually installing the fixes can invite more trouble. See The SCADA Patch Problem.]
Daniel says the president has taken a personal interest in cybersecurity, as have his top staffers, signaling just how important an issue it is in the national interest, as well as globally. "Within the White House itself, you can see the president is personally interested in this issue, as well as the chief of staff and the national security adviser. It has become a lot of the focus of our policy efforts," he said. "Internationally, you can see this, too. It's now not just about engineering arrangements ... it's an issue of statecraft and international diplomacy."
Meanwhile, the threat is escalating, he noted. "The attack surface continues to grow" with more network-attached devices, he said, and the attackers are becoming more sophisticated. "It's not just simple worms and viruses anymore," and the malware is harder to detect and is more dangerous, he said.
"It's not just website defacements or even denial-of-service attacks, but moving up to actual destructive attacks, things like what happened with Saudi Aramco this past summer," Daniel said. "All of these trends mean the environment is getting more dangerous, and that's why the president felt compelled to act in this space. The level of the threat simply demanded it."
The executive order is based on three "pillars," he said: information-sharing, privacy, and a framework of standards.
[Obama's executive order focuses on information sharing and works toward the establishment of cybersecurity standards, but some question whether it goes far enough. See Obama Cybersecurity Executive Order A First Step, But More Is Needed, Some Say.]
Daniel said the executive order is aimed at improving the amount of, quality of, and timeliness of threat information the federal government shares with the private sector. "We're focusing on where the government has specific threat information related to companies or assets or systems so we do a better job at pushing out that information to those particular entities that have been targeted, and we're going to do that in a classified and unclassified level," he said.
A key component here is expanding the information-sharing process it uses with the defense industrial base to "all critical infrastructure sectors," he said. "This program enables us to use particularly classified information and classified signatures in a way that enables [us] to give that information and protect critical infrastructure, but still protect sources of and methods used by which those signatures were derived."
Daniel said privacy and cybersecurity go hand in hand. "Privacy and cybersecurity are really two sides of the same coin. You can't have privacy these days without good cybersecurity," he said.
The framework/standards piece of the executive order is more about best practices, he said. The order calls for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to interface with private industry to determine how to take existing security best practices and get them adopted more widely across the nation's critical infrastructure, he said. A preliminary framework is due from NIST in eight months, and a final framework in one year, he said.
"This is not about technology or techniques. It's about best practices for cybersecurity that are already out there and making sure all critical infrastructure is following those," he said. "It has to be industry-driven. It won't work unless we get heavy participation and enthusiasm from industry."
One the security framework is finalized, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will launch a voluntary program for adoption of the framework. Also in the works are incentives for companies to adopt it, he said.
Regulatory bodies, meanwhile, will have to review their current regulations and requirements to determine whether they are in line with the framework. If so, they "don't need to do anything else," he said. But if there are any gaps or conflicts, they must align them, which may or may not require new regulations, depending on the issues, he said.
The executive order requires periodic reviews of the framework given the rapid pace of change in the threat landscape, he said.
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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