Privacy and digital rights groups are overstating the privacy concerns in a controversial cyberthreat information bill introduced this week in the U.S. Congress, the bill's sponsors and leaders of some business groups said.
Groups opposed to the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), introduced Wednesday, have "unfounded fears" about the privacy implications of the bill, said Representative Mike Rogers, a CISPA sponsor, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.
The bill would allow private companies in the U.S. to share cyberthreat information related to national security and cybercrime with each other and with government agencies, and it gives companies that share information in "good faith" immunity from customer lawsuits. CISPA would also allow government agencies to share classified cyberthreat information with businesses.
The bill is needed, Rogers said, because companies fear lawsuits if they share cyberthreat information with each other or the government.
Several privacy and civil liberties groups have objected to the bill, saying it allows privacy companies to share a wide range of personal information with government agencies without adequate oversight. On Thursday, the same day as a House hearing on CISPA, digital rights groups Demand Progress and Fight for the Future said they delivered a petition with 300,000 signatures opposing CISPA to Congress.
"According to the bill, personal information can be shared and obtained as long as the purpose is for 'cybersecurity' purposes, which can include anything like 'safeguarding' networks," Tiffiniy Cheng, co-founder of Fight for the Future, wrote in an email. "You can already choose a list of things that would fit into that [description] that most people would find to be a horrifying reason to obtain their personal info."
But companies would share little, if any, personal information with each other or with government agencies, Paul Smocer, president of the BITS tech policy arm of the Financial Services Roundtable, said during Thursday's hearing. Companies would be sharing information about the type of attacks and the source of attacks, not personal information about customers whose data was compromised, he said.
When cybersecurity vendor Mandiant now shares attack information with its customers, "it's data that is totally anonymous," added Kevin Mandia, CEO of Mandiant.
Smocer called the current privacy provisions in CISPA adequate.
In some cases, however, companies would be sharing the IP addresses of suspected attackers, Smocer said. Witnesses in the hearing didn't talk about the privacy implications of sharing information about suspected attackers.
The Intelligence Committee had no privacy or civil liberties groups testify during the CISPA hearing.
Most members of the committee did not raise privacy concerns, but Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, asked witnesses if they would decline to share cyberthreat information if the bill required them to take reasonable steps to delete personal information. None of the four business witnesses said such a requirement would stop them from sharing information.
"Americans are concerned with the amount of personal information that the government is getting already, without adding to," Schiff said.
Businesses would be ready to take reasonable steps to protect privacy, said John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable. "There's every intent and desire to minimize risks and to protect privacy," Engler added. "The greater threat [to privacy] is from the attacker coming in and trying to make something public that shouldn't be."
But Representative C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat and CISPA co-sponsor, questioned whether businesses should be responsible for scrubbing the personal information from the threat information they share. He asked if businesses should send the unscrubbed threat information to government agencies, and then the agencies take steps to anonymize the personal data.
Some businesses have complained that they don't have the resources to minimize the personal information in real time, Ruppersberger said. "Right now, our intelligence community has the capability, in real time, with a tremendous amount of volume, to do this, to minimize," he said. "They do this all the time because of our constitution."
Businesses should be able to anonymize the data they provide, Smocer said. "The provider of the information is in the best position to anonymize it," he said.
Digital rights groups oppose CISPA because it asks U.S. residents to trust that private companies and government agencies will not misuse their personal information, said David Moon, Demand Progress' program director.
"Once again, Congress is attempting to shield businesses from lawsuits when they invade the privacy of their customers; and once again, CISPA sponsors are insisting they won't abuse this power and reveal individual user information," he said in an email. "But nowhere in CISPA can you find these protections clearly outlined. Why won't CISPA's sponsors put basic privacy protections in writing?"
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is email@example.com.