Cybersecurity plan emphasizes public-private collaboration

The White House on Friday officially unveiled its long-anticipated national plan for protecting computer networks, emphasizing the importance of collaboration among the public and private sectors to strengthen cyber security, and avoiding government mandates.

The strategy offers five priorities: creating a response system; crafting a program to reduce threats and vulnerabilities; developing an awareness and training program; securing the government's computer networks; and encouraging international cooperation.

An initial version of the strategy was released in September, and the new version incorporates suggestions from the private sector made over the past several months.

"This strategy is the most critical first step," said Larry Clinton, deputy executive director of the Internet Security Alliance. "We support the approach the administration has taken with respect to the government attempting to lead by example but also relying on industry to step up to the plate as the main proprietors of the Internet and take leadership on cyber security."

A comparison of the prior version shows that the new plan tells the government to follow more specific tasks, which will be coordinated by the Homeland Security Department. It also clarifies that it places no mandates on the private sector, but encourages companies and others to supply information to the government about network vulnerabilities and the possibility of attack.

In addition, the plan encourages home users to focus on their own computer security, and it emphasizes the importance of computer-security training and awareness.

"In September, you had a bunch of vague recommendations. Though they were going in the right direction, it was hard to see how they were going to be able to follow up," said Mario Correa, director of Internet and network security policy at the Business Software Alliance. "Now that this plan is tied to the new department, it can be carried out."

The new strategy downplays a plan that former White House cybersecurity adviser Richard Clarke had long pushed but Internet service providers and other companies had resisted: the creation of a center operated by the private sector to monitor and analyze the Internet for potential attacks. The government is building its own "global early-warning information system," but the level of cooperation between the government and private sector on it is unclear.

The Computer and Communications Industry Association praised much of the plan, but noted it lacked reference that the federal government's heavy use of a single software platform could leave it vulnerable to attack. "Secure networks always have hardware and software from a variety of vendors," CCIA Public Policy Director Will Rodger.

Correa said the latest cybersecurity plan includes the creation of an Office of Infrastructure Protection Information that would gather data provided by companies through an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The plan also recommends that the private sector create one entity to provide information to the government on cybersecurity. Correa said industry must discuss whether to create such a group.