Commentary: Now is the time for Congress and the Obama administration to tackle cybersecurity

2010 was another watershed year for cybersecurity. One of the most significant threats to our national security is the danger posed by hackers, organized crime syndicates and foreign powers operating in cyberspace. Events, from WikiLeaks' Cablegate to the Stuxnet computer worm have pushed cybersecurity deeper into the public's consciousness than perhaps ever before. The progress made hasn't been nearly enough, however. Our national response to these and other potential threats remains far below what is needed, and we remain drastically underprepared for the challenges we face.

Many of the cyber threats that have taken root and grown beyond the headlines continue to fester due to a lack of attention from the legislative and executive branches and the private sector. The utilities that operate our critical infrastructure are unable to address what are seen as only "perceived" threats to our power grid. Our government continues to operate with vulnerable and outdated computers and there is no structure that governs coordination among our own federal agencies, much less our allies and partners overseas. Today, our nation stands largely unprepared to deal with the very real threats against not just our financial markets, power grids and military, but on our civil liberties and privacy as well.

In 2008, the Center for Strategic and International Studies Commission on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency released a report with many recommendations that at the time seemed common sense. Chief among them were recommendations that the White House take a leadership role and direct national strategy for cyberspace; the public sector enlist the help of the private sector; and the American public be engaged in what has, until recently, been a private discussion about the digital threats that could affect their everyday lives. Perhaps the most significant change has been the extent to which the American public is discovering the profound effects of the Internet on their daily lives, and the major policy implications for how their government works to serve and protect them.

Our second version of this report, "Cybersecurity Two Years Later", released in January, points out that while some meaningful gains have been made, many of the same challenges remain unsolved and many of the recommendations sadly remain unchanged. United efforts in this area should be much bigger than the baby steps of the past few years. We have to turn away from voices on the extremes that cloud the greater issues underlying the debate, especially the need for continued dialogue between the public and the government. We must not polarize the very public that cyberspace policy is designed to protect.

Many are frustrated with the pace of progress in cybersecurity, and they should be. Analysts and senior officials in Washington talk privately about a "cyber 9/11" scenario, reflecting a belief that as a nation, we will be unable or unwilling to take any meaningful action on cybersecurity until after some catastrophic event. But we see reason for hope.

There are many passionate and smart voices, inside government and outside, that are committed to seeing the United States remain strong and secure as the digital domain increasingly shapes our reality. Two years ago President Obama made cybersecurity a priority. Now is the time for the administration and Congress to follow through. With legislative groundwork laid last year, the White House and leaders in the House and Senate have an opportunity to work in a bipartisan manner to bring our nation in line with the technological realities facing us online. We hope we can all rise to the challenge presented to us and pledge to work toward a more secure tomorrow.

Reps. James R. Langevin, D-R.I., and Michael T. McCaul, R-Texas, served as co-chairmen of the Center for Strategic and International Security's Commission on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency.