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The U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security is calling for an enhanced public-private partnership that includes increased information sharing and the development of best practices in order to help defend U.S. critical infrastructure against cyber attacks.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano addressed a security cyber summit hosted in the District of Columbia by the Washington Post newspaper.
"Cyber [capabilities] extend into every aspect of our everyday life, and the nation is constantly under attack," she said. "Secretary Panetta sounded the alarm, and I do as well."
Napolitano was referring to statements made earlier this month by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, indicating that the United States is currently vulnerable to a "cyber Pearl Harbor," and that his department is in the process of drafting preemptive, first strike policies and capabilities. Panetta expressed concerns that foreign governments, hacktivists and the terrorist community could cause significant damage to the country by attacking the nation's power grid, financial networks, transportation system and other critical infrastructure.
During her comments at the Washington Post conference, Secretary Napolitano echoed those concerns and called for immediate action by the federal government to strengthen defenses against cyber attacks.
"Control system attacks are the most critical," she said. "The cascading effects are immediate, and they can be life-threatening."
The Department of Homeland Security is charged with protecting the government's non-classified networks, and works with other agencies to investigate and protect the communications grid, as well as a host of other critical systems. In an emergency, the agency is also expected to coordinate national response to significant incidents. "We look and act like a cyber-FEMA," she said.
Losses from cyber attacks are difficult to assess. Estimates discussed in the conference ranged from $114 billion annually to $400 billion annually, depending on the various elements added into the equation. Napolitano also said that the absence of clear guidelines and policies for information sharing is another reason why accurate estimates are difficult to assess.
The secretary also acknowledged the Lieberman-Collins bill, which was shot down in the Senate last summer, due to concerns about impacts on business, as well as privacy issues.
"Legislation is 'kind of stuck' in the Senate," she said. "There may be another attempt [at passage] in the lame duck session, depending on Tuesday's election.
"If Congress cannot act, then other options need to be pursued," she added. "We have to step up our game. The nation's security is involved."
Napolitano stopped short of prescribing specific changes to policies and regulations, but she called for the public sector and the private sector to work more closely together to arrive at a conclusion that would be both equitable and effective. Such an agreement would likely include real-time information sharing and the development of best practices to protect critical infrastructure, she said believes.