Cyber Security – Who Will Be Minding Your Business?

I don’t think anyone would argue that cyber security is a BIG problem. Not just hackers trying to get at your hard drive through sneaky emails. There are bad guys out there who might want to do things like take down the power grid. Or knock out entire networks. Or bring transportation systems to their knees. The threats are real and many.  There is a definite and proper role for strong, coordinated government initiatives to protect the country from cyber attacks – such action is, in my opinion, overdue. But who in the government is given that responsibility – and substantial accompanying authority – is up for grabs, and a power play is unfolding. I suspect most Americans have no idea of the changes that could happen fairly soon.

There is a Senate cyber security bill sponsored by John McCain [called SECURE IT] that would authorize internet service providers and other private sector companies to monitor communications and share information – potentially YOUR communications – with the National Security Agency (NSA) – the secret spy guys – or other Federal agencies. The bill contains very loose language defining ‘cyber threat indicators’ that would give the NSA a lot of leeway to track pretty much whatever they want – in effect imposing military authority over civilian activities.  Information sharing would be “notwithstanding any law.” That means any other existing law would be subordinate to it.  And with the NSA being a secretive agency by its nature, any misuses or over-reach would be hard to get at.

A probably more suitable agency to take on cyber security management is the Department of Homeland Security.  It is non-military and more appropriate to oversee private sector concerns. Even then, we still need a line between private sector networks and government entities – not everything should be the government’s for the taking. The implications for individual citizens and American corporations are staggering.

There are other bills under consideration in the House and the Senate that would be less threatening to civil rights and personal privacy – I won’t claim to understand the detailed legalese – but McCain’s bill seems to have some momentum that should not be ignored. Our government needs to do something, very soon, but I don’t think we need a Patriot Act for the internet. A reasonable balance between security and privacy must be maintained.

Average people need to understand that there will soon likely be significant albeit unseen changes in the open and free internet we’ve grown up with. While Google’s recent lack of ‘privacy policy’ made big news, I wonder how many people actually changed their online habits to protect their own data.  If the NSA is next to have at our digital information, I think we’ve really moved One Giant Step closer to Orwell’s Big Brother.  For those who find this possibility troubling, you might need to do something – like write your Senator and tell them so.

More information on the SECURE IT and other cyber security bills is available on the Center for Democracy and Technology’s web site.

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