WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama signed an executive order Tuesday aimed at helping protect the computer networks of crucial American industries from cyberattacks and prodded Congress to enact legislation that would go even further.
Senior administration officials said Obama's order calls for the development of voluntary standards to protect the computer systems that run critical sectors of the economy like the banking, power and transportation industries. It also directs U.S. defense and intelligence agencies to share classified threat data with those companies.
"Now, Congress must act as well by passing legislation to give our government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks," Obama said in his annual State of the Union address.
The president said America's enemies are "seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions and our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy."
Obama's executive order has been months in the making and is the product of often difficult negotiations with private sector companies that oppose any increased government regulation.
While largely symbolic, the plan leaves practical questions unanswered: Should a business be required to tell the government if it's been hacked and U.S. interests are at stake? Can you sue your bank or water treatment facility if those companies don't take reasonable steps to protect you? And if a private company's systems are breached, should the government swoop in to stop the attacks — and pick up the tab?
Under the president's new order, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has a year to finalize a package of voluntary standards and procedures that will help companies address their cybersecurity risks. The package must include flexible, performance-based and cost-effective steps that critical infrastructure companies can take to identify the risks to their networks and systems and ways they can manage those risks.
Officials will also come up with incentives the government can use to encourage companies to meet the standards, and the Pentagon will have four months to recommend whether cybersecurity standards should be considered when the department makes contracting decisions.
The administration was limited by law in what it could include in an executive order. But the order also calls for agencies to review their existing regulations to determine if the rules adequately address cybersecurity risks.
Congress has been struggling for more than three years to reach a consensus on cybersecurity legislation. Given that failure and the escalating risks to critical systems, Obama turned to the order as a stopgap measure with the hope that lawmakers will be able to pass a bill this year. Leaders of the House Intelligence Committee said they plan to re-introduce their bill that encourages the government to share classified threat information and also empowers companies to also share data while also providing privace and liability protections.