DHS Worries More About a ‘Fundamental Attack’ in Cyberspace than Theft, Napolitano says

Susan Walsh/AP

Executive order is tilted toward protecting critical infrastructure from a network strike that could kill.

The Homeland Security Department is more devoted to preempting a future cyberattack that could upend the economy or kill civilians than countering ongoing cyber fraud, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said of her agency's multifaceted network protection agenda. 

“From a standpoint of where we focus most of our efforts -- we do the theft of intellectual property, the counterfeiting, all of those kinds of cases -- but where we are focused within the security of the United States is really on that fundamental attack, that fundamental interference that could shut us down,” she said at a Senate hearing on Thursday.

Napolitano acknowledged, “That kind of investment may not be as marketable or return-on-investment-oriented as, say, protection against the theft of your intellectual property.”

The remarks answered a question by Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn about whether a new cybersecurity executive order strikes the proper balance between protecting intellectual property and protecting so-called critical infrastructure, or sectors vital to civilian life such as healthcare.

Napolitano said she felt the order, released Feb. 12 to coincide with President Obama's State of the Union Address, is appropriately aimed. “I think there's an easy economic case” to be made for preserving trade secrets, she said. “This is better for us, it’s going to be better for our bottom line, it's part of the [research and development] process and protection of our intellectual property.”

But “in the security context, there is a public element” to protecting critical infrastructure “that is not reflected immediately in the return on investment,” Napolitano explained.

Her 32-agency department shoulders the responsibility of preventing both cyber theft and "cyberattacks” -- often defined as network incidents causing damage, death or destruction. For example, the National Protection and Programs Directorate defends critical infrastructure systems, while the Secret Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigate computer fraud and piracy.  

The White House order in question is intended to increase communications about network vulnerabilities among government agencies and critical sectors. It also is aimed at persuading businesses to follow forthcoming, voluntary computer security guidelines. 

But for many companies, a financial drain from the cumulative effects of cyber fraud is more palpable than the specter of an electric grid outage. Less than a week after the critical infrastructure order arrived, computer forensic firm Mandiant disclosed evidence of the Chinese army having "systematically stolen hundreds of terabytes of data from at least 141 organizations" since at least 2006. The damage from economic espionage is hard to pin down, with estimates swinging between $2 billion and $400 billion a year. 

The day after the Mandiant report came out, the White House released a plan – not as weighty as an executive order -- to counter such cyberspying. Execution of the “Strategy on Mitigating the Theft of U.S. Trade Secrets" largely falls to the departments of Commerce and Justice. 

Divisions over which civilian and military agencies should fulfill which cybersecurity responsibilities have contributed to a standoff between lawmakers that has been playing out in the House and Senate for years. Administration officials want the executive order to serve as a stopgap measure until lawmakers compromise on reforms.