WASHINGTON — Improving the security of the computer networks that direct the nation's crucial infrastructure systems — such as electricity, finance and transportation — is the goal of proposals that the Obama administration announced Thursday.
"Our nation is at risk," declared an information sheet that the White House published along with the proposals. "The cybersecurity vulnerabilities in our government and critical infrastructure are a risk to national security, public safety and economic prosperity."
Cyber crime — attacks on computer systems by hackers, identity thieves, terrorists or hostile governments — has increased dramatically in recent years. Members of Congress introduced more than 50 separate bills to deal with this in the last legislative session. Senate Democratic leaders asked the Obama administration to help meld a coherent approach, and that's what the White House rolled out Thursday.
The administration's proposal would nationalize requirements for companies to report data breaches, standardizing what's now a patchwork of 47 different state notification requirements.
It also would impose mandatory minimum penalties for cyber-intrusions into infrastructure systems that the government deems vital.
The plan wouldn't propose government mandates or fines for crucial private industries that develop their own security standards. It would allow "self-evaluating" by industries so long as they publish descriptions of their approach and evaluations, and the government could "name and shame" those that fall short.
"We believe that the approach that's put forward in this proposal would serve as a strong incentive for those industries that this would affect to take the necessary measures for cybersecurity," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce welcomed the administration's proposal.
Ann Beauchesne, the chamber's vice president of national security and emergency preparedness, issued a statement that said the chamber was still analyzing the plan's recommendations.
"While we may not agree on every aspect of the proposal, the chamber looks forward to productive engagement with the White House and Congress to strengthen our economy and protect the nation's security," Beauchesne said.
The proposal didn't call for a so-called Internet kill switch, as suggested in an earlier proposal by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. That would have given the president new powers to declare a cybersecurity emergency and shut down private Internet traffic.
That idea has long been controversial, and critics renewed their opposition in light of foreign governments' crackdowns on the Internet and social networking sites during the Arab Spring and other uprisings.
"There is no request for emergency authority to shut down or limit Internet traffic," said Greg Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "The president himself may have killed the Internet kill-switch proposal once and for all."
"The president has sufficient authorities to deal with any emergency powers" already, said a senior administration official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House. "We're not asking for anything new."
The plan differs in some areas from earlier proposals by lawmakers, including not calling for any fines to pressure private industries to beef up their security measures.
It also emphasizes a need to ensure protection of individuals' privacy rights, and pledges that all monitoring, collection, use, retention or sharing of information must be limited to protecting against cybersecurity threats. The attorney general would have to review and approve information on individuals that was gained through cyberspace before it could be released for criminal prosecution.
Experts said the administration's long-awaited release could break a legislative logjam and pave the way for new national standards. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he hoped that a bipartisan compromise could pass by summer's end.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, chided the administration for taking more than two years to put forth a proposal, but she said the plan appeared to parallel "many of the objectives, particularly pertaining to modernizing the public-private partnership," that she and others had advocated.
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