The release of the first set of recommendations from two task forces formed last year at the National Cyber Security Summit has spurred a fresh round of criticism from security experts who say the governments reliance on vendors is stifling progress.
The recommendations were produced by the Awareness for Home Users and Small Businesses and the Cyber Security Early Warning task forces, two of five such groups established at the summit in December and known collectively as the National Cyber Security Partnership, or NCSP. Stacked with security and software industry executives and government representatives, the task forces are meant to tackle several big issues, including promoting secure software, providing corporate governance and developing guidelines for users to improve security.
Specifically, for small businesses, the Awareness task force has developed a guidebook listing simple security tips and advice. Two insurance companies have also agreed to provide insurance credits to small businesses that implement the steps in the guidebook. For enterprises, the group plans to hold regional summits for CEOs to meet with officials from the Department of Homeland Security. It will also start a direct-mail campaign this summer to give high-level executives information on network security.
The NCSP also plans to start this fall a three-year national ad campaign centered on the top 10 security tips developed as part of the Stay Safe Online effort sponsored by the National Cyber Security Alliance, a group of technology vendors and government agencies. The guidelines advise the use of anti-virus software and the installation of security patches.
Critics say that this kind of information is common sense and that the task forces should have gone beyond such issues. “The average user will never become the kind of expert needed to protect themselves against the attacks being launched today. The dire situation is caused almost entirely by software vendors who have completely failed to meet their responsibilities to the nation and to their customers,” said Alan Paller, director of research at The SANS Institute, based in Bethesda, Md. “In essence, the vendors are promoting a blame-the-user strategy because they cannot or will not build comprehensive security solutions.”
Task force members defended their efforts as necessary and valuable for most people. “Theres always the perception that [security is] taking care of itself,” said Howard Schmidt, chief security officer at eBay Inc., based in San Jose, Calif., and co-chair of the Awareness task force. “But these are common-sense things that these people need to understand when theyre running their businesses. Were not a one-stop shop for everything when it comes to cyber-security.”
The Early Warning task force has proposed establishing an alert network to promote information sharing between the private sector and the government during attacks. The network would be complementary to similar existing efforts, such as the Information Sharing and Analysis Centers and US-CERT. The group hopes to begin testing the system in October in preparation for a December launch.
The Early Warning task force is calling for the creation of a government-funded National Crisis Coordination Center to serve as a nerve center for industry and government officials during big attacks and other events. As planned, the center would be staffed by government and private-sector security specialists.
Still, there are those who deride the NCSP as yet another example of the government “partnering” with private-industry executives and failing to understand the issues that security specialists deal with on a daily basis.
“Everybody is quite irritated by the agendas being advanced by the vendors,” said one executive involved in the process, who asked to remain anonymous. “IT security has always been driven by the vendors, and this is just more of the same. Ive yet to see it ever being someone besides the vendors controlling the process. When is the government ever going to engage the actual practitioners? You have major executives who look at the government and think its ridiculous.”
The NCSP is allied with various industry trade groups, including the Information Technology Association of America, the Business Software Alliance and TechNet. In fact, officials from those three groups serve as secretariats for four of the five NCSP task forces, and many of the task force co-chairs companies belong to one or more of these associations.
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