President Obama made space in his State of the Union address to mention online security and revealed that he has signed an executive order named "Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity."
"We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy," the President told both houses of Congress. "That's why, earlier today, I signed a new executive order that will strengthen our cyber defenses by increasing information-sharing and developing standards to protect our national security, our jobs, and our privacy."
The White House has repeatedly expressed its frustration at Congress for not moving faster on this issue. Attempts to do so have either been voted down, as in the case of CISPA, or are currently stalled in the legislature. So now the administration has acted unilaterally.
The order calls for the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Director of National Intelligence to set up a system within the next 120 days to facilitate sharing non-classified intelligence on computer threats with critical infrastructure companies.
Within 150 days after that, Obama wants the trio's recommendations on ways to improve the public/private partnership between government and companies that run around 80 per cent of the national critical infrastructure, including plans to allow IT staff to be recruited into government to help fix security issues.
In eight months' time, the executive order calls for the "development of a situational awareness capability for critical infrastructure" and for this to be integrated into the National Infrastructure Protection Plan. This plan is basically the government's playbook for how to keep the lights on and water flowing in the event of an attack.
But it's going to be at least a year before we see any privacy protections sorted out. The US Chief Privacy Officer and the Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the Department of Homeland Security will draw up the protections and give and annual review of progress on privacy in the future.
So are Americans safe now? Not a bit of it. There's nothing in the order that makes any of this compulsory, and companies can carry on using shoddy security to protect the mechanisms of civilization with no penalty.
The scope of the executive order is constitutionally limited, however, and Obama urged lawmakers to pull their fingers out and get binding legislation sorted out to fix the issue. But with Congress deadlocked, this seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.
"The executive order reflects the reality that our current cyber approach is insufficient," said Bill Connor, CEO of security firm Entrust. "I commend it for focusing attention on a couple of key issues including cooperation between the private and public sectors. The fact remains that legislation will still be necessary to ensure both private and public sector assets take the essential steps needed to protect our nation." ®