House Panel: Do Private Nets Need Security Subsidies?

Under consideration by new committee overseeing the cyber side of homeland defense is whether critical cyber-infrastructure owned by the private sector requires subsidies for security.

A committee of lawmakers charged with overseeing the cyber side of homeland defense debuted Wednesday with a look at the research projects and priorities at the Department of Homeland Security. Among the questions under consideration is whether critical cyber-infrastructure owned by the private sector requires subsidies for security.

Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., asked the question of Charles McQueary, DHS undersecretary of the Science and Technology Directorate, who testified Wednesday. Charging that cyber-defenses in the private sector are "not as high as they could be," Andrews asked whether the government should subsidize the hardening of infrastructure to the extent that the market fails to.

Cyber-security is just one of seven top priorities in the Science and Technology Directorate, McQueary told the cyber-security subcommittee of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. In addition to protecting data networks, the office is researching ways to prevent the trafficking of nuclear materials and illicit explosives; detect the release of biological agents; prevent emerging technologies from becoming surprise weapons; develop standards for chemical, radiological and nuclear countermeasures; and conduct research for the departments other units, McQueary said.

Members of Congress are eager to better understand the workings of the new department, in part to pass the information on to their constituents. In the lagging economy, legislators increasingly are expressing the frustration of private companies that want to pursue homeland security contracts but do not know how to go about it.

At the hearing Wednesday, Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, urged McQueary to move quickly in implementing a program to identify technologies developed in the private sector and "rapidly prototype" them for homeland security. McQueary said that the DHS will create a technology clearinghouse, which will enable it to work in partnership with private industry.

Another House panel, the Committee on Science, called McQueary to testify last week, illustrating some jurisdictional ambiguity regarding congressional oversight of the new department. Members of both committees want to know the number of people and the amount of money that will be dedicated to cyber-security. McQueary did not have a specific answer Wednesday, but he said that his office has a total of 50 employees in place so far.

Lawmakers sought assurances that the new department is working cooperatively with other federal agencies. There are concerns that the new department may be draining other agencies, such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, of resources and expertise. There are also concerns that the DHS might inadvertently duplicate research under way at other agencies.

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