America's cybersecurity strategy needs an overhaul, according to a massive new government report — but what does that mean for the technology industry?
"The reality is that we are dangerously insecure in cyber," co-chairs Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., wrote in a letter prefacing the report, which was released by the bipartisan Cyberspace Solarium Commission on Wednesday. "Your entire life — your paycheck, your health care, your electricity — increasingly relies on networks of digital devices that store, process and analyze data. These networks are vulnerable, if not already compromised."
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The 182-page report argues for an approach of "layered cyber deterrence" and makes dozens of recommendations that would affect public and private sectors alike. The more than 75 recommendations run the gamut, from concrete suggestions about ensuring paper trails for voting machines to additional authorities for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, as well as specific legislative fixes aimed at spurring private sector security changes.
Many of the recommendations in the report "do not break new ground," James A. Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Protocol. But if they are enacted, some of them could have a significant impact on technology companies and other industries.
There's a lot to dig through, but here are some key takeaways.
Industry is part of the problem — and the solution
The report is littered with references to public-private partnerships and collaboration, many of them vague. But the general vision laid out in the report "will require private-sector entities to step up and strengthen their security posture," King and Gallagher not, adding that most critical infrastructure "is owned by the private sector." The underlying message: That some of that infrastructure is not resilient enough.
If the strategy laid out were followed through, there would be additional expectations placed on private industry — generally in the form of things like adhering to new security standards and working with various new federal structures designed to help manage digital national security risks.
However, King and Gallagher say they "do not want to saddle the private sector with onerous and counterproductive regulations, nor do we want to force companies to hand over their data to the federal government." That suggests that even they are looking for voluntary cooperation in many circumstances.
Data security and privacy liability incoming?
That said, there are some places where the Commission calls for concrete changes that would change business practices.
One of the most significant is the recommendation that Congress pass legislation requiring "that final goods assemblers of software, hardware and firmware are liable for damages from incidents that exploit known and unpatched vulnerabilities for as long as they support a product or service."
This would provide clarity and increased protections for consumers, it argues, while putting businesses on the hook for keeping their products and services secure. Expect plenty of pushback from across the tech sector and beyond over any proposed lawmaking along those lines.
On a similar front, the Commission recommends Congress "pass a national data security and privacy protection law establishing and standardizing requirements for the collection, retention and sharing of user data." Right now, there is no overarching federal standard, akin to Europe's General Data Protection Regulation, for data security. Instead a patchwork of state regulations help set the effective floor of privacy protections, led by more stringent regulation out of California.
The impact of any such law on businesses would obviously depend on just how strict it is — but there is increasing bipartisan support for some form of data privacy regulation, so watch this space.
One other recommendation that could affect industry is the proposal that Congress establish a "National Cybersecurity Certification and Labeling Authority" to run programs including voluntary security certifications and labeling for IT and communications products. While voluntary, this would be a step toward giving cybersecurity safety certifications similar to those used to show certain electric products meet basic safety standards — and could change customer perceptions of the products and services they buy.
But don't assume Congress will act
While the report lays out the stakes as dire — it even opens with a bit of dystopian fiction about a post-cyberpocalypse Washington — there's no guarantee Congress will take action anytime soon. In fact, many of the report's recommendations, including a comprehensive federal data privacy law, are proposals that have been floating around in the legislative ether in one form or another for years.
Angus acknowledged the legislative status quo in an interview with Wired, saying he hopes that around half of the recommendations will be considered as part of the National Defense Authorization Act in May.
Still, Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., a member of the commission and co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus, said he has "never felt more optimistic" during his decade of working on cybersecurity issues than with the release of this report.
"We have a long way to go as a nation to close our aperture of vulnerability in cyberspace," the Congressman told Protocol in an emailed statement. "But the strategy we lay out today will make us much more secure if we have the political will to execute it."