Obama Eyes Cybersecurity Strategy

Military and intelligence leaders say protecting the nation's computer networks from hackers, spies and terrorists is one of the top national security problems. During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to appoint a White House cybersecurity adviser.

On Friday, the president is set to release a review that is expected to lay out a plan for coordinating the government's cybersecurity efforts.

Foreign governments stealing U.S. military secrets. Foreign companies stealing advanced technology and intellectual property from American firms. It happens every day, says James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank:

"They're not mom-and-pop operations; they're not little kids," he says. "These are the spies of the 21st century, and they've been very successful. It's going to be hard for any company or any single city or police department or homeland security agency to deal with these very sophisticated opponents. It's going to take a national effort."

Republican Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, who contributed to a recent CSIS cybersecurity report, says the problem reaches across government.

"We know that last year alone, almost every federal agency had been penetrated and massive amounts of data were stolen from our government," McCaul says.

The Pentagon, NASA and air traffic networks were among those targeted. Lewis says the nation's power grid is particularly vulnerable. He points to a blackout six years ago that, while not caused by terrorists, was still disruptive:

"Everyone remembers the 2003 blackout in the Northeast. It's likely that three or four countries have the capability to do that kind of thing again," Lewis says.

The president on Friday is expected to lay out a strategy for protecting the nation's computer networks. It starts with a cybersecurity adviser who will report to him as part of the National Security Council within the White House.

The president's economic advisers are also expected to have a role. Rod Beckstrom says the bureaucratic structure is important. Beckstrom recently resigned from his position as director of cybersecurity in the Department of Homeland Security. He's wary of giving the National Security Council and the military primacy over the civilian side.

"The commercial sector is the primary user of the Internet and we as citizens. And the National Security Council generally doesn't represent that perspective as well as a group like the Council of Economic Advisers might, that are very attuned to the economy and business," Beckstrom says.

Privacy advocates, meanwhile, are worried that aggressive government efforts to secure the Internet and other computer networks could trample privacy and civil liberties.

"Unlimited government access to private communications would chill those communications," says Gregory Nojeim, with the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Nojeim praises the Obama administration for listening to privacy concerns.

Unlike many government problems, this one does not seem to require massive amounts of money. Instead, advocates say, it's about better coordinating existing government efforts.

Beckstrom says one key component is making the Internet more secure.

"And that is the best investment we can make, and it's been almost entirely ignored by our federal government. And we might see something in this report to move a little bit in that direction. We need to go a lot farther," he says.

Cybersecurity analysts say Friday's review cannot be the end but only the start of the Obama administration's attention to the problem.

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