State of the Union address disappoints security experts

In his state of the union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama promised to protect a free and open Internet and urged Congress to pass cybersecurity legislation

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Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama promised to protect a free and open Internet and urged Congress to pass cybersecurity legislation, but the lack of concrete movement forward was a disappointment for many security experts.

"No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids," Obama said.

"But we are making sure our government integrates intelligence to combat cyber threats, just as we have done to combat terrorism. And tonight, I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyber-attacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children’s information. That should be a bipartisan effort."

Doing nothing would leave the country, and its economy, vulnerable, he said.

For some security experts, these brief comments did not go far enough to deal with the evolving cyberthreats the country is facing.

"President Obama missed a major opportunity to articulate the U.S. government’s approach to cybersecurity over the next decade," said Andrea Little Limbago, principal social scientist at Arlington, VA-based Endgame.

"With the Sony breach still very fresh in our minds, and public interest in the national security implications of cybersecurity at an all time high, President Obama had that rare opportunity to shape the policy debate."

Instead, his comments lumped security together with privacy, diminishing the importance of cyberthreats, she said.

The proposed cybersecurity legislation touched on several important issues, but there was doubt as to whether it could be passed, and, if passed, if it would do any good.

"I’m actually still unsure of what exactly the President thinks he is solving," said Kevin Jones, senior security architect at Washington, DC-based Thycotic Software, Ltd.

"CSOs already have it in their best interests to do everything they can to reduce breaches, and his proposed legislation that was mentioned in passing during the State of the Union really doesn't add any incentives to further those efforts."

In particular, the new criminal penalties and information sharing that the legislation creates could actually create new problems.

"One thing that I have seen all over social media is the concern from computer security researchers that a greater enforcement against cyber-crime would criminalize the research they do," said Adam Kujawa, head of malware intelligence at Malwarebytes.

"At the same time, privacy advocates are untrusting of the new information sharing measures being proposed as they are uncertain of what information is exactly being shared and does it pertain to the personal information of citizens."

Other experts, however, were happy to see the issue garnering national attention.

“While brief, President Obama’s State of the Union address underscored the importance of cyber security, which no doubt should warrant a call to action," said Derek Manky, global security strategist at Sunnyvale, CA-based Fortinet Inc. "I believe that this issue is now at the forefront of all public and private sector across the world."

Plus, there's only so much he could have said, anyway, said Dodi Glenn, senior director of security intelligence and research labs at Clearwater, FL-based ThreatTrack Security, Inc.

"One possible reason the President did not more fully address his cybersecurity legislation in his State of the Union speech may have been that the topic is of a highly technical nature, and many in his audience may not have understood what he was speaking about," said Glenn.

And it's not just the general public that might be in over their heads.

"Overall, I think the intentions are good, but more work needs to be done," he said. "Certainly education of Congress on the topic needs to happen before this cybersecurity initiative can go full force."

IT executives should take advantage of this moment, said Clinton Karr, senior security strategist at Cupertino, CA-based Bromium, Inc.

"Savvy CSOs will leverage Obama’s remarks to underscore the importance of cyber security initiatives to board members and executives that may otherwise be disinclined to support their budgets and investments," he said.

And there is only so much that Obama could have done unilaterally, added Todd Inskeep, advisory board member at the RSA Conference.

"Changing penalties, limiting liability for information sharing, establishing corporate requirements, converging disparate state breach notification requirements, these all require congressional action and support," he said. "Cybersecurity is a clear national issue, so bipartisan congressional support could make some of these changes happen in 2015."

One thing that the government can do is to use its buying power to improve the security of products and services it purchases. And that has already happened.

"Back in October, Obama announced BuySecure, where the government would move to using secure payments," said John Pescatore, director of emerging trends at Bethesda, MD-based SANS Institute. "That's what I was looking more of -- that the government would use its buying power to make products more secure."

"That was probably a more meaningful effort than any of these bills that are in this bundle of legislation," he added.

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