Homeland Security agency to focus on information-sharing plans

Draft of national infrastructure protection plan has generated about 7,000 comments, official says.

The homeland security agency tasked with protecting critical infrastructures sees 2006 as a year to improve information-sharing among key sectors like electricity, water and information technology.

The Homeland Security Department is expected to send the national infrastructure protection plan to the White House this month, according to Col. Robert Stephan, the assistant secretary for infrastructure protection. The public comment period on the final draft ends Feb 6.

In an interview with Technology Daily, Stephan said the initial draft sent to stakeholders like state homeland security officials, utility companies and emergency responders generated about 7,000 comments. In January, his office read each comment to reach consensus on how the various players partner, organize and share information.

Stephan began his current position in April and said he realized early that major changes were needed to protect critical infrastructure in a disaster. Nearly 85 percent of that infrastructure is in the private sector, and Stephan said government authority to regulate the industries is limited.

"The first thing I decided was we needed to overhaul our interim national infrastructure protection program," Stephan said. "We needed a strategic backbone. We've been working very hard, interrupted minorly by hurricanes in September and October."

The hurricanes helped the group pinpoint information on critical infrastructure gaps or interdependencies that had not been fully recognized, he said.

For example, Stephan said the New Orleans area has oil refineries and chemical companies producing products key to national security. Some equipment was corroded by saltwater, and entire components had to be replaced. In the meantime, other companies needed to increase production to compensate.

"One of the big lessons coming out of the hurricane: You've got to have a good plan tying everyone together," Stephan said.

Now that some level of real-time information-sharing is in place, the federal government is working closely with the private sector to share information that will help in future crises.

This year, critical industries are focusing on sharing information on risks and cyber security. Ken Watson, senior manager of the critical infrastructure assurance group at Cisco Systems, cited a key accomplishment in 2005. His group helped a gas association develop a new algorithm to secure remote control of electrical power and devices like valves.

Industry previously had controlled the devices on lines leased from a telecommunications firm, where the only danger was a cut line. "Now you've got all these devices available on the Internet so a smart hacker can find them and mess with them," Watson said. "We don't want that to happen."

The security tool will be shared with electric companies. Stephan said a next step will be developing advanced computers to map the interdependence of critical sectors like rail lines -- in order to deliver chlorine to purify water supplies, for example. Then emergency officials can better develop timelines and priorities to get an area operational after a disaster.