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Cybersecurity Bill Rhetoric Heats Up in Washington

President Barack Obama says foreign adversaries could seek to exploit U.S. computer vulnerabilities

Computer vulnerabilities and how they can affect Americans' security are on the agenda for the U.S. Senate, and strong rhetoric is being used to support new legislation.

The Cybersecurity Act of 2012 is expected to move to the Senate floor this week. The bill has the support of President Barack Obama, and it is being sponsored by Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.

"The cyber threat to our nation is one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face," Obama wrote in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on July 19.

The president said that foreign adversaries could seek to exploit U.S. computer vulnerabilities, taking down vital banking systems, and that could cause a financial crisis. Similarly, he said, "The lack of clean water or functioning hospitals could spark a public health emergency. And as we've seen in past blackouts, the loss of electricity can bring businesses, cities and entire regions to a standstill."

Lieberman and four other co-sponsors of the cybersecurity bill recently introduced a revised version of the bill that has broader support than the prior version, which privacy advocacy groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation said included serious threats to civil liberties.

According to the EFF, major privacy protections added to the new bill ensure that:

  • Only civilian agencies will be in charge of U.S. cybersecurity systems, as opposed to the National Security Agency, which has been spearheading warrantless wiretapping for years.
  • Data won't be shared with law enforcement except in certain circumstances such as when it relates to a cybersecurity crime investigation or an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm.
  • Data garnered from cybersecurity initiatives can't be used as evidence for other crimes such as copyright infringement or drug usage.
  • Constitutionally-protected free speech and terms of service violations won't be considered as threats to cybersecurity.

Even so, the EFF maintains that the new bill isn't perfect.

"Currently, the bill specifically authorizes companies to use cybersecurity as an excuse for engaging in nearly unlimited monitoring of user data or countermeasures (like blocking or dropping packets)," EFF says.

In his op-ed, the president wrote that the cybersecurity bill about to be considered in the Senate reflects input from industry and civil libertarians, has bipartisan support and is backed by homeland security, intelligence and defense leaders in Washington.

Check out the bill for yourself (PDF).

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