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TECHNOLOGY

Back to the Drawing Board For Cyber Bill

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Cyber security analysts work in the "watch and warning center" during the first tour of the governmentís secretive cyber defense lab  Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011, in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Congress is struggling to pass cybersecurtity legislation.(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

After years of work, backers of the sweeping Cybersecurity Act of 2012 say they’re eager for the Senate to debate the bill, but  it doesn't look like anything big will happen soon.

This was supposed to be the bill that everyone got on board with. But its sponsors are back at the drawing board with Republicans, who say the bill would enact too much government regulation; and civil liberties groups and some Democrats in Congress who say the proposals could run roughshod over privacy laws.

 

The Cybersecurity Act was originally supposed to be up in the first working period of 2012. Senate staffers are currently eyeing the second or third weeks in June for floor debate on the legislation, which has the backing of the White House and Senate Democratic leaders.

The Senate Homeland Security Committee has introduced broad cybersecurity legislation every year for the past several years, with little to show for it. Orchestrated by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a multi-committee, bipartisan working group process was supposed to break the stalemate and deliver an omnibus cybersecurity bill.

That bill was the Cybersecurity Act of 2012, rolled out with much fanfare in February. Reid said he wanted it on the floor in the first working weeks of the session, but more than half a dozen Republican committee leaders criticized the bill and the process that produced it.

 

The Cybersecurity Act would increase government oversight of some private networks like electric grids, water systems, or transportation, which could be at risk from cyberattacks. The Department of Homeland Security would decide which businesses should be considered critical infrastructure.

Homeland Security Committee spokeswoman Leslie Philips says the need is dire, pointing to the recently discovered Flame virus. “The threat is upon us,” she said. “Congress needs to pass legislation to strengthen the security of vulnerable networks now.”

A chief critic of the Cybersecurity Act, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said last week that that he has made no headway in resolving disagreements over how far the government should go to protect private networks, and which government agencies should take a lead role in cybersecurity. “There’s a fundamental philosophical difference here,” he said.

McCain and a string of other GOP committee leaders introduced their own cybersecurity bill, the Strengthening and Enhancing Cybersecurity by Using Research, Education, Information, and Technology Act (Secure IT) Act.

 

It would allow companies to voluntarily share information about cyberthreats; limit liability for companies that take steps to protect their networks; limit the type of information that can be shared in order to protect privacy; and reform federal cybersecurity standards.

On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.,  worried that proposals to encourage information sharing on cyberthreats could undermine privacy and open the door to a “dystopian” system of tracking Internet traffic for future crimes. “These bills allow law enforcement agencies to mine Internet users personal data for evidence of acts entirely unrelated to cyber-security,” he said in a floor speech last week.

Wyden, who filibustered an anti-online piracy bill earlier this year, said he hasn’t decided how far he’ll go to protest the provisions in cybersecurity legislation but his opposition gives a glimpse of the headache Senate Democrats face as they try to gather votes.

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The privacy flap is déjà vu for Senate Homeland Security Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and his cosponsors, who are meeting with civil liberties groups that oppose the Cybersecurity Act over privacy grounds.  A year ago Lieberman and company revised another cybersecurity proposal in response to critics who said the bill could give the president the power to shut down the Internet.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Michelle Richardson said her group is withholding judgment until potential changes are worked out with members of Congress, but she said she is hoping to see substantial revisions.

“We know the sponsors are considering meaningful changes that would better protect privacy,” she said. “They are on the right track. Once cyber information sharing legislation passes, we’re going to be stuck with it and it’s incredibly important to get it right.”

A limited cybersecurity information sharing bill, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, passed the House with a bipartisan vote in April despite privacy concerns. But the White House threatened to veto it and the bill is not expected to be considered in the Senate any time soon.

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