Civil Liberties Groups Praise Revised Cybersecurity Bill

The new legislation would limit the amount of information that private companies can share with the U.S. government

Five U.S. senators have introduced a revised version of cybersecurity legislation unveiled earlier this year, with digital liberties groups praising changes that limit the type of cyberthreat information that can be shared between private companies and the U.S. government.

The revised Cybersecurity Act was introduced late Thursday by Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, and three Democrats. The bill addresses several criticisms of the earlier bill, sponsored by four of the five same senators, including concerns from civil liberties groups that the old version would allow businesses to share a wide range of information about cyberthreats with several federal agencies.

The new bill narrows the definition of what information can be shared, and allows the information to be shared mainly with civilian agencies, and not with military or intelligence agencies, said the Center for Democracy and Technology, a critic of the older bill. In addition, the new bill would limit the shared information to be used only for cybersecurity, for protecting serious threats to children, or to protect people against imminent threat of death or serious injury and not for other investigative purposes, CDT said.

The bill could come to the Senate floor as early as late July.

"Our critical infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to cyber threats, and can be manipulated or attacked by faceless individuals using computers halfway around the globe," the bill's sponsors said in a joint statement. "The destruction or exploitation of critical infrastructure through a cyber attack, whether a nuclear power plant, a region's water supply, or a major financial market, could cripple our economy, our national security, and the American way of life. We must act now."

The changes in the new bill make it more protective of privacy than a competing cybersecurity bill from several Republicans, including Senator John McCain, and than the controversial Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, or CISPA, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in April, said Leslie Harris, CDT's president and CEO.

The new bill addresses "key civil liberties concerns that have dogged the cybersecurity debate," Harris said in a statement.

Free Press, another digital rights group, also praised the changes. "We are glad to learn that there are substantial improvements in the bill, with significant new provisions designed to limit its potential impact on privacy, civil liberties and Internet openness," Matt Wood, the group's policy director, said in an email. "Without passing judgment on the bill as a whole or further changes that should be made to strengthen it, we welcome the tremendous progress made thus far."

The revised bill also ends cybersecurity mandates to operators of critical infrastructure networks that could be ordered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security if the agency finds the operator's security lacking. Instead, owners of critical infrastructure could choose to participate in a voluntary cyberscurity program.

The bill would offer incentives to companies that volunteer for cybersecurity programs, including protection from lawsuits related to cyber incidents and increased help and information on cybersecurity issues from U.S. agencies, according to information from the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, where Lieberman is chairman.

DHS would not implement the voluntary security program. Instead, a new intra-agency council would work with private companies to create it. Some critics had raised concerns that the old bill gave DHS too much power over private cybersecurity measures.

While digital rights groups applauded the changes to the bill, Rob Rachwald, director of security strategy at cybersecurity vendor Imperva, called the bill "weakened."

The new bill "drops a lot of mandates," he said in an email. "As much as security professionals may hate to admit it, compliance works."

Private companies will have to focus more on cybersecurity with mandates out of the bill, he added. While the credit card industry has developed its own security standards, "other industries and enterprises only react when they experience a breach -- not a reassuring dynamic," he said.

Still, the bill may help improve cybersecurity in the U.S., Rachwald added. "Something is better than nothing," he said. "Forcing executives to recognize cybersecurity as a pillar of modern business is a necessary step."

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 grant_gross@idg.com.

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