The passage by the U.S. House of Representatives of the Protecting Cyber Networks Act on Aprils 22 is being widely hailed as a critical first step in protecting networks in the United States against cyber-criminals.
This bill is intended to make it easier for companies to share information about cyber-attacks with other companies and with the government. A similar bill is in line for consideration by the U.S. Senate in the near future. President Obama has already indicated that he’ll sign it.
This new bill takes a critical step by limiting the liability of companies that share cyber-security information in good faith, it restricts distribution of the information within the government, it forbids the information from being provided to the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Department of Defense, and it requires that personal information be removed before the information is passed to other companies or the government.
However, some privacy and security advocates say the bill doesn’t go far enough in protecting privacy and that it allows companies with shoddy security practices to escape consequences of data breaches and thefts.
But remember, this bill is only the first step. A companion bill, The National Cybersecurity Protection Advancement Act of 2015, will fill in some holes. That bill has been reported out to the full House and is expected to be voted on within a few days. Passage of that bill is also anticipated.
Jasper Graham, former NSA technical director and now vice president of Darktrace, says that the bill that was just approved is a good start. “I think it’s a really good thing,” Graham said. “It’s the start of a longer conversation and the beginning of putting a more holistic conversation in place.”
What’s most important is that Congress has taken this important first move, Graham said. “None of these things are going to be perfect, and there will be a lot of debate around it, but you have to start somewhere.”
Graham asserts that to some extent the concerns of privacy advocates are overblown. “If people were to really understand how much privacy information they give to Websites they browse, they’d be shocked,” he said. “They’re holding the government to a much higher standard.”
Graham said that while it’s important to protect privacy, it’s also necessary to give the government the teeth it needs to accomplish the job of protecting security.
This bill has been in the works for several years, but until now has failed to get the support it needed to make it through Congress. Several things have changed since the beginning. First, the massive data breaches of 2013 and especially 2014 have made it clear that more needs to be done to protect business than is being done now.
Cyber-Security Bill Seen as Good First Step Despite Privacy Concerns
Second, the bill has added some restrictions and privacy protections that weren’t in the earlier bills. In addition, the companion bill now being considered would place coordination in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security rather than one of the intelligence agencies.
Graham said that he expects to see some modifications to the bill that’s presented to the Senate that would cover some of the remaining concerns. One facet of the bill that needs to be changed, he said, is that companies shouldn’t be able to protect against poor practices.
“One of things that could be added is some sort of standard of practice,” he said. “After the breaches of 2014, we should not see reports that stolen information was unencrypted and in the clear.” He said that he doesn’t think the bill should give negligent companies a free pass.
“If they don’t do due diligence, they should not be free from repercussions,” Graham said. “Companies need to do the right thing to protect the information.”
Advocates for passage of a cyber-security bill have been broadly supportive. Scott Belcher, CEO of the Telecommunications Industry Association, said that this first cyber-security bill is an important step in security.
“Cyber-attacks are not just a threat to our national security,” Belcher said in a prepared statement, “but to Americans’ economic security as well. The cyber-security legislation passed by the House today provides greater legal protections to those who share critical information about cyber threats and vulnerabilities, encouraging the voluntary sharing of data that will provide networks and users with stronger defenses against hackers.”
But as Graham said, this is only a first step. While the new law will allow companies to avoid liability for sharing data and will also prevent some lawsuits resulting from breaches, it does not remove the need for companies to act responsibly.
When a massive breach occurs, there is simply no excuse for being told that none of the information was encrypted, as was the case with the Anthem health care breach. While it’s true that no law required Anthem to protect those records with encryption, the company still put its members and others at great risk through what can only be described as negligence.
Fortunately, as the former CEO of Target found out, the market can be a powerful force. After Target’s breach, the company lost 30 percent of its valuation and its CEO lost his job. Nothing in this new law prevents those repercussions, nor should it. Unfortunately, it may be time to include some penalties for such negligence, regardless of any limitations of liability.
This bill doesn’t do that, but it’s still important and needed to be done. As Graham said, “It’s time.”