Cyberthreat sharing must include strong privacy protections, advocates say

U.S. lawmakers should put strict privacy controls into planned legislation to encourage companies to share cyberthreat information with government agencies and each other, some advocates said.

Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said Wednesday they plan to work on a cyberthreat information-sharing bill in the coming months. But representatives from Microsoft and the Center for Democracy and Technology told lawmakers they can avoid the controversies of other recent bills by requiring companies and government agencies to strip out personally identifiable information before sending cyberthreat information to other organizations.

Cyberthreat information-sharing bills introduced in Congress in recent years, including 2014’s Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) and 2013’s Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), failed to pass after questions about how much customer information they would allow companies to share with government agencies, including intelligence services.

The committee will move forward on cybersecurity legislation with the goals of enhancing the U.S. economy and protecting national security, committee Chairman Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, said during a hearing. “If we concentrate on that, recognizing there are different viewpoints on this, I think we have a far better chance of succeeding” with legislation, he said.

While past efforts to pass legislation have failed, the push to pass an information-sharing bill received a boost this month from President Barack Obama. The Obama administration resurrected its May 2011 proposal to give private organizations immunity from lawsuits when they share information about cyberattacks with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other agencies.

Information sharing will often involve some customer data, said Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel at CDT. As Congress moves toward new legislation that would protect companies that share cyberthreat information from lawsuits, it should limit what government agencies can do with the information, by forbidding them from using it for law enforcement or national security investigations not related to cybersecurity, he said.

“The flow of this information to the government triggers concerns that cybersecurity information sharing could evolve into a surveillance program,” Nojeim said.

Past information-sharing legislation, including CISA and CISPA, would have allowed the widespread sharing of customer information and “trumped” all U.S. privacy laws, he said.

When government agencies seek personally identifiable information from companies involved in information-sharing programs, they should have to go through standard court processes, such as getting a warrant, added Scott Charney, corporate vice president in Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing Group.

Users of Internet services want assurances that the information they give to those companies is protected, Charney said. “Privacy is a fundamental value and must be protected,” he said.

Other witnesses at the hearing downplayed privacy concerns related to information-sharing. Companies would be sharing “cryptographic hashes or pieces of software code,” said Marc Gordon, CIO at American Express. “There’s nothing associated with customers in any shape or form.”

As long as companies only share attack indicators, “we don’t see that there’s any real issue at the end of the day,” Gordon said.

But in some cases, companies would share IP addresses in an effort to pinpoint the source of attacks, Charney said. Courts should oversee the sharing of IP addresses and customer account information, he said. “There reaches a point where the government wants more [information], and we require legal processes to be followed, so that our customers know we’re protecting their privacy, and not just giving the data away voluntarily,” he said.

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