House cybersecurity activist bemoans apathy about countering threats

Texas Republican would give budgeting power to White House czar and provide IT industry incentives rather than tightening regulation to protect data.

This week's hacker attacks on credit card and other consumer websites in the wake of the WikiLeaks controversy provide a perfect example of America's vulnerability to attacks against online networks by criminals, spies and enemy states, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, co-founder of the House Cybersecurity Caucus, said Thursday.

McCaul said he sees a frustrating "lack of interest" in countering the threat among many in Congress, whose "eyes glaze over at these high-tech issues they don't understand." A similar disregard for terrorism threats was apparent in the days leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks, he added.

Speaking at a Cybersecurity Insider Series event that Government Executive, the SANS Institute and Northrop Grumman sponsored, McCaul described the career events that led him in September 2008 to join with Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., to start the bipartisan House Cybersecurity Caucusto foment dialogue among members on a subject under the jurisdiction of multiple committees.

McCaul's work on a 2008 commission the Center for Strategic and International Studies runs revealed that every federal agency has been hit by cyberattacks in which unauthorized parties have downloaded the equivalent of all the data in the Library of Congress.

Increasingly, the U.S. military is recognizing that cyber threats during the next decade must be the top priority "from a business and national security standpoint," he said. "Many terrorist organizations don't have the capability, but they could contract with, say, the Russian mafia. If you take down the Northwest's electrical grid or a financial system, you do more economic damage than you do by flying a plane into a building."

The government's approach to countering cyber threats suffers from a lack of coordination among agencies to meet a challenge made difficult by the fact that the private sector controls much of the Internet, McCaul said.

He has offered legislation to elevate the status of the White House cybersecurity coordinator and special assistant to the president, a position held first by Melissa Hathaway and now occupied by Howard Schmidt. Without authority over agencies' cybersecurity budgets, McCaul said, the so-called czar will be as ineffective as, some critics believe, the position of director of national intelligence has been in coordinating data sharing and consensus among the 16 federal intelligence agencies.

McCaul proposed banning the manufacture of the malware that bad actors often purchase and use in cyberattacks, and he would offer industry tax credits and other incentives -- rather than more regulation from the Homeland Security Department -- to produce operating systems and software that are safer from outside penetration.

He predicted the current Senate cybersecurity bill Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., sponsored will not pass, in part because of privacy advocates' objections to its provision to give the president a "kill switch," which would allow him, in the case of a massive cyberattack on the United States, to shut down the Internet.