Homeland Security Chairman: We're in the Fight of Our Digital Lives

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul's keynote address at the RSA security conference included a blunt assessment of cyber-security threats.

Homeland Security

SAN FRANCISCO—The chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, Republican Michael McCaul, didn't mince words to describe threats to the country's cyber-security during a keynote here.

"To be brutally honest, we are in the fight of our digital lives, and we are not winning," McCaul said. "I get briefed every week, and it's clear our adversaries from Russia and China and nation-states are stealing our country's secrets and our intellectual properties, while terrorists are crowd-sourcing the killing of innocent people. The phone in your pocket is the new battle space."

McCaul said he had "no doubt" the Russian government tried to undermine the most recent presidential election by spreading false stories. McCaul said he was briefed by intelligence agencies about the Russian actions last spring and warned the Obama administration and the Trump administration after it took office. "I pushed the issue, but was disappointed with the response in both cases," he said. "Our democracy is at risk. It didn't matter to me if this was about a Democrat or Republican."

McCaul said cyber-terrorism and other digital threats are particularly challenging because there has never been a weapon like it that is so adaptable and expensive to defend against. "We are fighting a 21st century threat with 20th century technology and a 19th century bureaucracy."

The congressman offered several steps the United States must take to go on the offensive in the fight against cyber-criminals.

Deterrence is critical, he said. "If there are no consequences, the bad behavior will continue." McCaul said the sanctions imposed on Russia for hacking in the U.S. election is a perfect example. "If we don't hold the line on sanctions, I'm sure they'll do it again. We have to say 'enough is enough.'"

He also urged companies and governments to do more to cooperate with each other on sharing information on security threats and intrusions. "Our nations have different laws around security and privacy regulations, but we have to act quickly to establish clear rules of the road for dealing with cyber crises and work on mutual defenses and actions.

"Today, we have plenty of threat data, but the sharing is weak. The vast majority of cases go unreported."

The government needs to work closely with the commercial sector to come up with new security solutions, but McCaul said he's opposed to the idea that security firms create a so-called backdoor that would give law enforcement access to encrypted devices.

"We have to resist the simple solution. I believe backdoors would be a huge mistake because it would leave our personal devices and companies at risk," he said.

While McCaul's remarks focused mainly on digital threats to security, he did talk a bit about immigration with a veiled reference to President Trump's attempts to limit travel to the United States from seven predominately Muslim countries identified as terror threats.

"Recent events in Washington have raised concern about attracting international talent. This is a country built by immigrants. Our country is a magnet for people to pursue their dreams. I will fight to ensure the U.S. remains open to freedom-loving people regardless of how they worship or the color of their skin. That is who we are, and that's how we will attract the world's best thinkers," said McCaul.

The Trump administration has also talked about putting further limits on H-1B visas, a position at odds with McCaul's view. "Many of your organizations want the flexibility to retain talent from around the world. America's doors must stay open. I support efforts to streamline our H-1B process so we can always attract the right people at the right time," he said, to applause from the audience.

David Needle

David Needle

Based in Silicon Valley, veteran technology reporter David Needle covers mobile, bi g data, and social media among other topics. He was formerly News Editor at Infoworld, Editor of Computer Currents...