Homeland Security official urges prudent cyber approach

The private sector is making progress in securing computer vulnerabilities against attacks and disruptions, and while there are significant areas of concern, it is important not to overreact, the Homeland Security Department's chief cyber-security adviser said Tuesday.

In comments to the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee, Amit Yoran called for a prudent approach to addressing cyber vulnerabilities. The committee met to hear testimony on the status of ongoing government cyber-security research, and on remaining long-term security needs.

Yoran highlighted the problem of known software flaws being written into commercial software and said even the benefits of more secure software will take years to be realized. "The same 19 programming flaws account for 90 percent of the vulnerabilities discovered," he said.

However, even if the tools and techniques available today for secure software were implemented, it would be a "number of year cycles" before these improvements reached businesses and consumers, he said.

There is no "silver bullet" to guarantee cyber security, Yoran said, but a combination of techniques and practices are available. "We need to think outside the box in terms of how our reliance on information technology can be used against us," he said, but any action should be a well thought out and cautious approach.

"If it were so simple to take down the Internet with a few keystrokes, we would have seen this already," said Yoran, who called for greater research into the economics of cyber security and how to gauge the return on investment from security measures.

However, commission co-Chairman Edward Lazowska objected when Yoran suggested that venture capital, not the government, could better fund research into advanced security technologies. "Companies look only a couple of years out and that's it," Lazowska said, adding that government has a "clear role" to play to nurture ideas for implementation a generation later.

"Venture capital plays a role at the end of the pipe," he said.

Carl Landwehr, the cyber-security research director at the National Science Foundation, said the foundation has received $64 million for fiscal 2004 research grants and has requested $76 million for fiscal 2005. Landwehr cited 175 NSF-funded research programs in trusted computing.

Large-scale grants include a multi-university test bed to study "sensitive information in the wired world" and the $5.45 million Defense Technology Experimental Research Network run by the University of California at Berkeley.

Landwehr added that the Commerce, Defense, Energy and Homeland Security departments also are funding cyber-security research.

David Clark, a senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said a "renaissance, if not a revolution," in computer-security research is underway.

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